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Return of the Unknown review at Dover Marine Station – ‘uneven promenade piece’

Return of the Unknown at Dover Marine Station. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
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Marking the centenary of the Armistice, Return of the Unknown is a clumsy but undeniably ambitious interrogation of the act of remembrance.

The site-specific promenade piece takes place in the vaulted industrial grandeur of Dover Marine Station, through which well over a million service personnel passed during the war.

With its exposed girders draped in bunting, and its cavernous spaces overtaken by seagull puppets, designer Rachael A Smith evokes diverse time periods with set dressing from hay bales to polythene wrapped strip lights.

At times achingly self-indulgent, James Baldwin’s script eventually finds some resonance amongst the fragments of verbatim testimonies, historical vignettes, and bizarre post-apocalyptic sci-fi he throws together.

However, director Matt Costain struggles to cope with the sheer scale of the spectacle and the unwieldy size of the audience. Much of the runtime is spent milling around, straining to make sense of an overlapping cacophony of barely audible voices.

Amongst a hundreds-strong cast, many of them children and amateur performers from the local area, Jonathan Tynan-Moss stands out as a soldier resurrected through technology to tell his story, which, it turns out, is believably coarse and apolitical.

Dempsey Bovell brings a superb note of gravitas to his portrayals of King George and Walter Tull, perhaps the British army’s first non-white officer, while Jonathan Raggett is solid as a Chinese serviceman facing down the bigotry of the people he fought for.

Though their jumbled stories never convincingly come together, there’s no denying the necessity of retelling them.

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Uneven and unrestrained promenade piece grapples with the world-changing legacies of the First World War