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.

Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Great Apes

Arcola Theatre, 31st March 2018

I sort of lost track with Will Self the author after The Book of Dave. His sprawling, satirical fantasies with a lot of big words, unreliable narratives and narrators, drugs, mental dislocation, is never short of imagination and ideas, but aren’t always that easy, or pleasurable, to read. He is very clever and very funny, and he knows it, and really likes to show it. His influences are many, and obvious, Ballard, Burroughs, Heller, and then back through Kafka, Joyce, Voltaire and Swift. I gather he too has given up on the novel, all of them, not just his.

I did enjoy Great Apes however and its successor How the Dead Live. Our protagonist, artist Simon Dykes (Simon/simian geddit), whose prime artistic concern is, surprise, surprise, perspective, wakes up after a bender to find his girlfriend, Sarah, is a chimpanzee. And so is everybody else. His human “delusion” means he is taken in by psychiatrist Zack Busner, Will Self’s stock character, here an alpha male chimp. From this transparent inversion Self shines a light on human, and chimpanzee behaviours, we’re not so different, and on the nature of mental illness and reality. Because the satire is so primitive, as it were, and has been done to death in those wretched Planet of the Apes films, Self has to concentrate his powers on the narrative and the characters in a way that sometimes escapes him in the other novels. By colliding chimpanzee and human society and culture, Self sheds light on our own behaviours, fears and dysfunctions. It is also adroitly pokes fun at our own human exceptionalism. London, drugs, mental illness, “false” narratives are all explored, as you would expect, but there also some affecting exploration of relationships, which you don’t really expect from the lugubrious Mr Self.

In short its is clever yes, but with a purpose, and it has a proper plot. How then to put it on stage. Well first break it down into the key scenes. Mr Self’s detailed imagining of this alternative society has to run alongside the story of Simon’s journey from human “reality” through “delusion” and eventually to explanation, and Dr Busner’s rise and fall. To get it on to the Arcola stage needed some perspicacious work from adapter Patrick Marmion, which we have. It also needed the creative team of director Oscar Pearce, designer Sarah Beaton, lighting designer Matt Haskins, sound designer Dan Balfour, movement director Jonnie Riordan, costume supervisor Kate Hemstock and the puppetry team of Tom Espiner and Mala Kirkman-Richards, to combine to reveal enough to allow our imaginations to do the rest. In this they succeeded, a remarkable achievement given limitations of space and budget.

Perhaps the most important technical contribution however came from chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant Peter Elliott. Now I will stake a wild guess that there aren’t too many people with that particular job title. His bio shows that he has worked on a number of major films involving primates, real and imagined, and, most remarkably, it says he became the first ever person to integrate with the colony of chimps at the University of Oklahoma.

I am also guessing the cast has down too much auditioning for primate work in the past. The way they combined voice, body and the simple props, benches, ladders and specialised crutches, (not sure if they have a special name), to simulate chimpanzee movement, sound and behaviour, was really impressive. Whilst Bryan Dick playing Simon and Ruth Lass playing Dr Zack, that’s right, in a piece of inspired casting we had a woman playing the alpha male here just to mess up our heads a bit more, the other five actors doubled up, or more. Yep they had to take on the character of not just one but several different chimpanzees. I was particularly struck by the performance of Ruth Everett as Busner’s assistant Jane Bowen, artist Tabitha Buckfast and Eve Knight, a film-maker.

Now I will admit with so much to pack in there were times when ambition overreached execution. Some of the plot had to be chivvied along especially towards the end. To have covered everything in the book would have been technically and dramatically impossible, and some of the intelligent subtleties and artistic allusion of the book gets a bit lost along the way.

Still you will end the evening definitely entertained, in awe of the technical achievement and with plenty to think about even if you may not entirely connect to the characters. Then again they’re chimps aren’t they? How would you connect to them? They’re animals aren’t they? They’re not as special as us are they what with out technology, language and civilisation?