For Frantic Assembly’s latest co-production with Theatre Royal Plymouth, Anna Jordan has written a triptych about three men from Scarborough who return home from war.
There’s a shell-shocked young man home from the First World War, a dishonourably discharged soldier in Afghanistan who’s all over the tabloids, and a refugee in 2026 on a quest to find his brother in a Britain stricken by civil war.
The writing is strong on the trauma of war and how conflict shapes masculinity, though the futuristic strand suffers from a few well-worn dystopia tropes.
The Unreturning is smoothly acted by its cast of four, all of whom came up through Frantic Assembly’s training program for young men, Ignition.
Neil Bettles’ production oozes prestige like a flagship BBC drama. It’s slick to a fault, and the design team have had a field day. Pete Malkin’s ever-present score full of resonant piano is cinematic in scale. Andrzej Goulding’s rotating shipping container set with its shifting configuration of panels and doors is evocative of seaside towns, and changes second by second under gloomy projection mapping and Zoe Spurr’s restless lighting design. In a thrilling sequence everything suddenly explodes in a frenzy of movement – music swells, lights blind, the actors weave in and out of the set.
Nevertheless, for all its skill and panache, and despite the play’s emotive subject matter, the overall impression is of a show oddly lacking in soul, trading off the liveness of theatre for filmic sheen, every beat perfectly programmed and stage managed.