The Unreturning

24/10/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Traverse Theatre is sold out tonight, testament to the fact that Frantic Assembly are arguably the UK’s leading exponent of physical theatre. The fact that their work is on many a drama exam syllabus may account for the scores of teens in the audience, or maybe it’s just that everyone already knows how good they are. Either way, this co-production with the Theatre Royal Plymouth is currently touring the country, and the word of mouth has clearly been good enough to pull in a crowd.

As we take our seats, a large metal shipping container appears to be floating centre stage on a pool of rippling water. The lights dim, the music begins to pulse and sliding doors in the container open and close introducing us to the four young actors who will be presenting Anna Morgan’s The Unreturning. Then the container starts to spin like a well-oiled merry-go-round and, from the very first moment right up to the powerful ending, I am totally mesmerised.

This is a story set in three different time periods. In 1918, young army officer George (Jared Garfield) returns from the trenches traumatised by the horrors he has endured and longing to be reunited with his wife, Rose. In 2018, squaddie Frankie (Joe Layton) comes back from a tour of Iraq in disgrace, after participating in an act of mindless violence after the death of one of his comrades. And in 2026, Nat (Jonnie Riordan), who has fled to Norway in order to avoid conscription in the UK, decides to head back to his homeland in the hope of reconnecting with his younger brother, Finn (Kieton Saunders-Browne), with whom he has recently lost contact. All three men are heading for the same place: their home town of Scarborough.

This is a tale about young men and the shattering effect that war can have on them. It is also about the importance of home and about what it represents to different people.  It is simultaneously a requiem for the past and a chilling warning for our potential future. Director Neil Bettles handles the piece with consummate skill as the four actors flit athletically from role to role, somehow finding time to refigure their costumes, so I am never in any doubt as to where I am or when I am. Morgan’s haunting prose is augmented by incredible physicality as the actors run, leap, clamber and whirl around the stage in a series of perfectly choreographed moves. Special praise must go to Andrzej Goulding’s deceptively simple set design, which allows the shipping container to be all manner of locations: a ruined house, a boat, a vehicle speeding along a motorway…

Look, I won’t beat about the bush here. This is, quite simply, a brilliant piece of theatre. If it comes to a venue near you, please don’t miss the opportunity to see it. It really is very accomplished, an absolute wonder to behold.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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