Culture Critic Naomi Simpson reviews the ‘brutally delicate’ The Unreturning by Anna Jordan, performed by Frantic Assembly
As we approach the middle of a gruelling first term of university, it can be all too easy for us students to bury our heads in the sand –or rather, our duvets– of our own worries and lose perspective on the wider world. On Wednesday evening, I had this comfort blanket unceremoniously ripped from my hands by The Unreturning, Anna Jordan’s tempestuous new play at The Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham. Although it seemed to veer somewhat worryingly towards the realm of slam poetry when it began, by the end I was clutching onto my empty glass of shiraz wondering how it was possible to have gone through quite so many emotions between 7:30 and 9pm on a Wednesday night.
It quickly becomes clear that The Unreturning is not a stale, curriculum-approved 90 minutes of historical melodrama. The play centres on the experiences of three men, one a soldier in WW1, another a soldier in 2013 and finally a refugee from war-torn England in 2026 as they navigate the return home. In a beautiful piece of theatrical sleight-of-hand, these three worlds (including a brief detour in Norway) were represented by a shipping container, variously filled with early 20th Century furniture, climbed on top of and spun round to convey the desolation these three men lived through.
The plot jumps between the three generations and delicately explores what war meant in Britain one hundred years ago compared to the present moment, and ponders exactly what it could mean in the future in the context of a civil war. The WW1 soldier comes home a celebrated victor, to a country ready to rejoice in his success and toast the conquering hero but bearing the scars of PTSD and shell-shock. The soldier in 2013 comes home to a barricade of press outside his front door having been exposed via the internet as a racist brutalised by war. The 2026 refugee returns home to discover nothing more than broken glass and the debris of a life once lived by the sea.
The visual world of the play may have been sparse, but the script and sound design were explosive, evoking the guns of the battlefield as the men screamed to go home, whatever that meant now. United by geography these three Scarborough men’s lives played out against the sound of the sea, at once a refuge and a threat, a promise of escape if home turned out to be less a safe haven than a continuation of the battleground. Frantic Assembly, the theatre group to which the actors belong, is famous for its intense use of physicality and the three men were constantly hoisting each other up in a tender nod to the camaraderie of shared experience and the inherent need for support through trauma, as well as the utter disorientation war had caused in them.
In this centenary year of the end of WW1, nothing feels more fitting than this brutally delicate play. Leave shaken, sombre and convinced that you’ve just seen the work of a truly promising playwright flexing her creative muscles with amazing confidence.
The Unreturning will be performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East from the 16th January to the 2nd of February 2019, and then at venues including the Leicester Curve. More information can be found here.