The Unreturning at Theatre Royal Stratford East review *****

The Unreturning

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 24th January 2019

Denizens of Leicester, Swansea and Oxford. Consider yourself lucky. There is still time for you to catch the tour of Frantic Assembly’s The Unreturning which has already travelled to Plymouth, (the Theatre Royal who cannily commissioned it), Southampton, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Birmingham and Chichester, as well as Stratford East. For make no mistake this is a fine piece of theatre that deserves your attention for a number of very good reasons.

First off Anna Jordan is clearly a very talented playwright. I haven’t seen Yen, her much lauded breakthrough play, though on the strength of this I really hope it is revived soon. I am though looking forward to what she brings to Brecht’s Mother Courage which she has adapted and which has just opened at the Royal Exchange Manchester.

In The Unreturning she has interwoven the stories of George, Frankie and Nat, who return to their home town of Scarborough, damaged from their experience of war. In 1918 George is shellshocked after his experiences in the trenches in WWI and his wife Rose cannot cope with his breakdown; in 2013 disgraced Frankie is not welcomed back as a hero from his turn in Iraq and cannot put a lid on his anger; and Nat is stricken by guilt about the brother Finn he left behind after escaping as a refugee to Norway in 2026 from a future British civil war. Scarborough may be home but they are not welcome. Time may move on but the issues the returning combatants face remain the same.

This is no naturalistic drama however as Ms Jordan has created a far more episodic and lyrical structure for drama and text. That is not to say that the narrative does not quickly come into focus. The three opening monologues which together form a prologue, describe what each of the three protagonists are aching to experience when they come home, and that, together with the experiences they bring back with them (which go well beyond the simple “war is hell”), forms the nub of the play. In each case the multiple characters that Ms Jordan also introduces, as well as the prudent use of a chorus, serve to flesh out the personal histories and create real drama. The chorus, as well as further monologues, also n’tbring real poetry to contrast with the dialogue of each short scene.

As if that was enough, Frantic Assembly’s trademark physicality also brings a further, thrilling, dimension.. At first glance, Andrzej Goulding’s set, a revolving (when pushed, no fancy technology at TRSE) shipping container, is hardly revolutionary, but when combined with his strikingg video design (for which he is more renowned), Zoe Spurr’s prominent lighting design and Pete Malkin’s bold electronic soundscapes, the effect is invigorating. Especially when combined with a four strong cast who are constantly in motion. It is difficult to believe that they play all twenty five named parts, in addition to the chorus, as well as shifting sets and props. An immense technical achievement, especially when I see no attributed movement director. Though as it happens the stock-in-trade of director here, Neil Bettles, who is a Frantic Assembly Associate Director, is movement.

Of course with this much activity it occasionally takes a second or two to work out exactly who is who in each scene though the reason for each of the supporting characters being there is plain enough to fathom. The cast. Jared Garfield (Frankie), Joe Layton (George), Jonnie Riordan (Nat) and Kieton Saunders-Brown (Finn), are all past alumni of Frantic Assembly’s Ignition project which each year supports twelve young men from across Britain from backgrounds which normally preclude access to drama education to create a performance over a week in London. Whilst all of them have gone on to successful TV and theatre careers they have come together to work on The Unreturning offering conclusive proof, if such where needed, of just how effective this venture has been. They are all tremendous, not just in the effort they put in, but in the way they tease out character from relatively few lines and from the ensemble effect they create. I would happily watch this team, with this creative team, in a future production. In fact I would watch them all again in an extended version of each of the three intertwining stories.

Regular readers of this blog will know that the Touris,t given that he loves his theatre, and, he contends, chooses wisely, is easily pleased. But you don’t have to take his word of it. The matinee performance he attended was chock-a-block with local schoolkids, the TRSE not having forgotten its local identity even as AD Nadia Fall looks to broaden its audience and create destination theatre (which this most certainly is). Always a discerning audience, there was the usual shuffling and tittering early doors but pretty soon these young’uns where as gripped as I was.

I see that the proper reviewers were generally not as overwhelmed as I was with many emphasising the triumph of technical style over dramatic substance. They are wrong. Yes it is a viscerally exciting piece, with a clear message, but it is also expertly constructed and beautifully written. I know we are only a couple of months in, and this is not quite the best play the Tourist has seen this year, that honour goes to Sweat at the Donmar, (now transferring to the Gielgud I see – do not miss), but I reckon it it will prove one of the most ambitious and memorable theatrical experiences of this or any other year.

I’m Not Running at the National Theatre review ***

I’m Not Running

National Theatre Lyttleton, 22nd January 2019

If you have a moment one day take a look at the writing credits of David Hare, both for stage and screen. There are a lot, including some of the finest dramas written in the English language over the past four decades. And he shows no sign of slowing down in contrast to some of his eminent peers. I enjoyed his interpretation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and his last original play, The Moderate Soprano, (even if it veered towards the hagiographic), as well as his screenplay for the film Denial, and prior to that the Worricker thriller trilogy on telly, which he also directed. I can’t say I was completely persuaded by The Red Barn, his adaptation of a Georges Simeon story, his last outing at the NT, though it looked brilliant nor by Collateral, his four part TV police procedural/thriller on the Beeb last year, which was packed with detail and performance but didn’t quite hang together (especially when compared to the likes of Line of Duty and Informer).

So is the old boy going off the boil. Well, obviously not. Here is someone who can literally churn out line after line of exquisitely apposite dialogue in his sleep, (even if it does verge on catechism), his drama continues to be stuffed with commentary on big moral, political, social and economic issues, the sine qua non of state-of-the-nation drama, he can sketch out a character in just a few lines, (even if deeper psychological details can sometimes move elusive), and his stories normally have a verve and pace that rapidly draws you, in provided you are prepared to engage the brain as well as the heart. All of this is on show in I’m Not Running, which also features a couple of bravura lead performances from Sian Brooke and Alex Hassell (and fine supporting turns from especially Joshua McGuire and Amaka Okafor, Brigid Zengeni and Liza Sadovy).

Yet it is not an entirely convincing play and, IMHO, falls short of vintage political Hare seen in the likes of Gethsemane, or The Power of Yes and Stuff Happens, and falls well short of the likes of The Secret Rapture, Plenty or, on a similar theme, The Absence of War. This, I think reflects, the slightly awkward conjunction of the personal connection and political rivalry of the main characters Pauline Gibson and Jack Gould, and the censure of a Labour party, (always a favourite target for Hare), which smacks more of the Blair years than the current incarnation. There is surely much that Mr Hare could have criticised about the current Opposition in his play, notably its enabling of Brexit, but here we are asked to look instead at how the party machine locks out “outsiders”, specifically a woman, in favour of well-connected, “professional” politicians, with the NHS as the idealogical battleground. Whilst the points it makes, and this being David Hare, the way it makes those points, are elegant and indubitably valid, the absence of Corbyn, Momentum and the B-word, seems curious.

The play opens with a media scrum ahead of an announcement from Pauline Gibson (Sian Brooke) and her adviser Sandy Mynott (Joshua McGuire) about whether she will stand as leader of the Labour Party. We then flashback to Newcastle University in 1997 and the Blair landslide when Pauline, a headstrong medical student, and boyfriend, hesitant would-be lawyer, Jack (Alex Hassell), are splitting up. Pauline, whilst dealing with the fall-out from her alcoholic mother Blaise, (a savvy, though somewhat wasted, performance from Liza Sadovy), enters Parliament as an Independent defending her Corby hospital from closure. She crosses paths again with Jack, scion of an intellectual heavyweight of the Left, who is now a smooth careerist rising up the Parliamentary ranks tasked with NHS reform. Principles vs pragmatism, single issue vs party machine, popularity with party and public, institutional sexism in politics, all are explored against the backdrop of the smouldering passions of the voluble couple.

It is still a testament to Mr Hare’s dramatic gift that the arguments can be interrogated without any hint of cumbersome exposition and that the characters he recruits to the cause still come across as real, if not in both cases here, as completely likeable. Director Neil Armfield could hardly do more to tease out the detail of the text and Ralph Myers rotating blank room set doesn’t get in the way (though there are occasions when the actors look a little lost when standing at the wings of the Lyttleton stage).

Sian Brooke’s Pauline contains enough distanced vulnerability to set alongside her self-righteousness and Alex Hassell’s fly-by-night Jack convinces as he treads the path littered with compromise that he was ordained to follow, but the Tourist couldn’t escape the feeling that this was all a little bit David Hare by numbers and that the couple, even with the supporting characters, seemed to be operating in a bubble devoid of external context. Still well worth seeing though for me James Graham’s Labour of Love was a far more entertaining, and insightful, take on similar territory.