Theatre Review | The Unreturning

‘No Man’s Land is Every Man’s Land’

Frantic Assembly & Theatre Royal Plymouth’s production, The Unreturning, was a heart-wrenching, torturous and difficult watch form start to finish at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre. However, following Mental Health Week and numerous events from the past four years commemorating 100 years since the First World War, the timing couldn’t have been more poignant.

Director Neil Bettles led an outstanding cast who were utterly transfixing. Gender-swapping is familiar to Liverpool audiences following the first ever female Othello being performed here, yet seeing four men take on female roles was a brave directorial decision, which paid off. Frankie (Joe Layton) played George’s (Jared Garfield) wife, whilst Nat (Jonnie Riordan) also played Frankie’s mother. Bettles elevated the battlefield’s brutality through dynamic choreography; violence and destruction became a slow-motion movement of bodies around the stage, working together as one. The soldiers each present a different generation of war, however they were hybridised harmoniously, presenting an honest image of war and its devastation.

A simplistic set design by Andrzej Goulding kept the audience’s attention solely on the cast, however the large, industrial container in the stage’s centre was innovatively used. It functioned as both an intimate setting- from a local pub to a war zone- and a material for projections; 21st Century technology was central in this production, and YouTube videos of violence and government information of ‘deceased’ and ‘wanted’ men frequently appeared on the screen. Flashings of information on the screen and literal flashings of light became at once claustrophobic and electrifying to watch. Feelings of entrapment, both during war and after, were literally suggested through a netting of rope which acted as both a torture method and a swing towards the unknown.

Lily Arnold’s costume design categorised the different generations in a minimalist way. A burgundy bomber jacket signalled Joe Layton as Frankie and when removed signalled his role as George’s wife. Later when George (Garfield) displayed shell-shock symptoms, Arnold had the actor dressed in white, and barefoot, symbolising war’s destruction of innocence and youth.

Processes of thought were at the heart of the play, and Bettles undoubtedly emphasised the importance of voices and feelings in Anna Jordan’s play. Home comforts- tea, smells of toast, clean sheets and the sound of the sea- are referenced frequently and act as a reminder of what we take for granted.

‘The Unreturning’ is running at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre until 20th October. Tickets are available here- https://www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/the-unreturning

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