The Unreturning review
By Paul Nero
Frantic Assembly and Theatre Royal Plymouth Productions
One minute into The Unreturning and the cage, the box, the hut, the capsule - whatever the construction that dominates this set should be named – is flashing images, human images, of the characters who will dominate the next hour and three-quarters. Two minutes in and we’re into the dialogue, the poetry, the prose, the exposition, the drama. This is going to be the mix for the evening: imagery and character, beautifully told, visually and verbally.
Three stories, three periods, one theme; what war does to those returning from conflict when their homes and families no longer fit. The 1918 Tommy. The 2013 Iraq veteran. The 2026 UK refugee attempting to get back to England, the place where “there’s no hope…Have you seen your country lately.” Undertones of Brexit, never mentioned, and possibly imagined, but Norway’s the option Frantic Assembly has chosen for the 2026 story.
What a century ago was shellshock and is today post-traumatic stress disorder, we see. What in the Great War was trench warfare, having pals shot or die choking in the mud, and is today the IED blowing mates to smithereens so their limbs hang from trees, we hear. We have some of the usual war stories; baby-killer Germans who share a drink on Christmas Day but you shoot, drunk, later. The Gulf veteran trained to kill so it shouldn’t be a surprise he gets into fights. But these (unfeeling only-in-it-for-the story journalist excepting) are not the clichés written and seen in lesser productions. Instead they are believable, compelling vignettes about the damage war inflicts on combatants who, once returned, are never the same again. Long johns and flannel shirts may not be the designer wear of choice once today’s vets are back in civvy street, but some things, people, emotions, stay the same.
This all-male four-hander, with Jared Garfied, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan and virgin to the professional stage Kieton Saunders-Brown, is skilfully performed, as physically adept and verbally dextrous as one would expect from this company. That cage, that box that dominates the stage, is not quite Phillip Schofield’s Cube technically, but the lights flash and the music pulsates, and people who enter may not be the same people who come out. These are lifechanging stories.
Any downside? Well, 105 minutes is an awkward length for a production. Do you have an interval or don’t you? Frantic Assembly chooses not, and that’s understandable if you don’t want to break the tension in a story that hangs together in a single act. But this is a Falklands era venue, where seats haven’t been refurbished since our boys were in Basra winning hearts and minds. It may be an inconsiderate moan in the context of the horrors of war we’ve witnessed in under two hours, but one or two people suggested they may be unreturning to The Drum till the seats are fixed and there’s a possibility of an ice cream at the interval. But go to see it before it moves on, and take a cushion.
The Unreturning is at The Drum, at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until 6 October, then touring to Southampton, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Stratford East, Chichester, Leicester, Swansea and Oxford.