“The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell.”
The effect of armed conflict on the already fragile male psyche is a deeply fascinating subject. Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning takes a timelessly important issue — the return of the soldier from war — and creatively explores touching and interesting variations on what these returns mean and have meant through time. Told through three constantly overlapping and intersecting storylines, the play paints a gripping and tragic picture of the collision of memory, trauma, and men who will never exist the same way again — for whom a true ‘return’ is impossible. Performers Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan, and Kieton Saunders-Browne take on the production with intense spirit, and compellingly elevate Jordan’s impactful choice of subject matter. One will truly feel moved by the real-life implications of the play’s content, such as meditations on the legacy of war crimes, the role of friends, family, and average people in the return of discharged members of the military, and how truly detached so many of us are from the experience of war.
This play is produced by Frantic Assembly, a group both admired and infamous for the wall-to-wall physicality of their shows. The Unreturning plays to their strengths in many respects; the extensive and balletic movement all four performers put themselves through over the course of the three stories are a marvel to watch, and embed the stories with clever visual connections. The structure of the show is at its best when the three stories overlap in direct parallel to each other, such as a sequence near the beginning when all three board or initiate their respective transports ‘home’ — home in each case being Scarborough. George (Garfield), boards a train; Frankie (Layton) sits in a cramped plane next to sunburnt tourists; Nat (Riordan) barters with Norwegian boatmen to smuggle him into a war-torn United Kingdom. The parallel is revisited in a breathtaking setpiece following the three men as they wander around the area, each distraught for their own reasons, and deliriously visit Scarborough monuments and landmarks; they stand next to each other onstage, separated by time but alike in their disconnection from what is meant to be their home. George, you see, is returning home after armistice in 1918; Frankie has been discharged for committing a hate crime in Afghanistan in 2013; Nat is searching a bombed-out Scarborough for his brother in 2026.
Yes, 2026. The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell. For all the immense emotional intelligence at work in The Unreturning, this aspect of Jordan’s script, along with director Neil Bettles’ over-reliance on the overcomplicated revolving set, render a great deal of the actual stage time irritatingly silly. For although the subject matter is compelling, the tone and pace of the Frantic Assembly approach are a poor match. The breakneck energy, high-bravado set-changes and head-spinning multi-roling repeatedly jar against the profundities of the story, producing deeply unfortunate moments like a floating hat and dress cartoonishly symbolizing George’s lovestruck wife, or the discordant wiggling the company members return to over and over when George experiences haunting flashbacks or Frankie succumbs to substance abuse.
The show has a lot of wiggling. This is not always a bad thing, of course, though it seems to be Frantic Assembly’s bread and butter. To evoke a shaky memory, the actors wiggle. To show the passage of time or space, the actors wiggle. To recreate a pub or a discotheque, the actors wiggle drunkenly. All this wiggling is finely choreographed and expertly executed, but the main result of it all is a simple: why? Why take so much focus away from the intriguing narrative elements to just move around like spaced out dancers? It is pleasant, impressive movement, but mostly has very little to do with the gravity of the situation — like if a bunch of mourners started breakdancing at a wake. Sure, it’s impressive, but is now the time?
When the wiggles pause, and moments of achingly tender performance are allowed to play out, the talent is notable. Garfield, in particular, imbues George with a brilliantly measured depth, wherein he visibly wrestles with both his wartime experience and anxiously rethinks every aspect of the rest of his life. Jordan’s script detracts from itself, especially early on, by piling far too many profound statements on top of each other in nearly every line, yet Garfield turns most of them into affecting ruminations rather than fortune-cookie-esque dictums — his parable about the Christmas day truce near the middle of the show is the performative high point of the piece, without a doubt. Layton is also an electric performer, who displays expert timing and delivery every time he is onstage; while Frankie has much less multi-dimensionality than George (the supposed ambiguity of his character’s racial crimes are a weaker element of the script), Layton nevertheless leaves a lasting impression as a versatile actor. This is not as true for Riordan, who is outmatched by his fellow actors; the 2026 storyline he leads is, again, incongruously silly, and Riordan deserves credit for the desperation and consistency of his take on Nat’s miserable trajectory, but overall he does not bring enough verve to a storyline already lacking justification. Saunders-Browne, playing various supporting parts, does a solid job bouncing around so many characters and time periods, and in his case, the future-set monologue he delivers late in the show is thankfully not so opaque as the rest of that storyline to overshadow his well-measured delivery.
Overall, The Unreturning is a curious example of a potentially mismatched writer and company. Yet, aside from the more incongruous choices onstage, the performances are memorable and affecting, the treatment of the subject matter is mostly excellent, and one can easily overlook the weaker elements in favor of a truly noble intention.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 October)
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