Writer: Anna Jordan
Director: Neil Bettles
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
Scarborough, 1918. And 2013. And – soon. Three men are coming home. George and Frankie are soldiers, George a shell-shocked survivor of the trenches, Frankie a disgraced Afghanistan veteran. Nat is a refugee from a war-ravaged UK a few years hence which feels uncomfortably plausible, returning to look for his missing brother. Their stories interweave as they search for a sense of home amid lives warped and sprained by violence.
“Frantic Assembly” actors Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan and Kieton Saunders-Browne could well be soldiers trooping the colour, so complete is their confidence and disciplined physicality. Under the direction of Neil Bettles they clamber, swim, dance and somersault their way across Andrze Goulding’s stripped-down set, each in flight from his own truth. Layton in particular shines as a perversely sympathetic Frankie, whose humility and torturous efforts to explain the truth of army life have the audience rooting for him despite his crime: his fate feels especially painful.
But perhaps it’s invidious to pick out star turns when the quality of the acting is so fine across the board. Garfield’s George, collapsing in on himself after the loss of his men and alternately angry and pitiful, is just as powerful, while Riordan in Nat creates a sympathetic Everyman whose very relatability poses uncomfortable questions for his audience about the status of “other” that we near-automatically accord to refugees. Meanwhile Saunders-Browne doubles up his main role as rebel narrator Finn with turns as a doctor, smuggler and lager lout: in fact, all four actors transition seamlessly through a sequence of supporting roles that showcases their versatility.
The quality of Anna Jordan’s writing suffuses the play. Drawing on interviews with former soldiers and tapping a recent bereavement of her own, she creates dialogue and especially soliloquies of shuddering power. Each character has his distinctive voice, and Jordan pulls off the sleight of hand of combining credibility with lyricism in the words of each. Scenes cut slickly between characters or bring them together in a counterpoint of shared loss and lostness, building in intensity almost to the last minute of the piece. Nat’s ending, it’s true, feels a little hyperbolical, but then, how do you round off a post-Brexit civil war narrative in an apocalyptic English seaside town?
And there’s humour, too, to leaven the intensity: tender, funny moments between George and his bemused wife Rose, sensitively played by Layton, and a darkly comic scene between Nat and some Norwegian people-traffickers that will make you laugh and then think.
Goulding’s misleadingly simple set proves as versatile as the actors themselves: a shipping container open at both ends, set on a turnstile, is by turns obstacle course, tunnel, nightclub, sea strand and screen, where the shadows of George’s former comrades and YouTube clips of Frankie’s guilt are projected through Zoe Storr’s clever lighting design.
At the end of the night, the audience at the Traverse rise to their feet in a standing ovation, and it feels deserved. The Unreturning is an absorbing, thought-provoking piece of new writing, immaculately staged by a cast who draw out of it both its mental depth and physical power.
Runs until 27 October 2018 | Image: Contributed