‘The Unreturning’ presents an unrelenting force of dynamic energy and taut emotional highs. Exceptional design and immaculate performances engage and enthral the audience, and concludes not with a bang, but a tense and desperate plea for better days ahead.
A story split between three periods of time, Frantic Assembly’s production is an extremely impressive and engaging performance. Tackling subjects of trauma, masculinity, and future warfare, the audience follows George (Jared Garfield), a World War One soldier struggling with shell-shock, Frankie (Joe Layton), the laddiest lad in ol’ Scarborough town in 2013, and Nat (Jonnie Riordan), bundled up in a mountain of parkas as he traverses a dystopian England in the hunt for his brother Finn (Kieton Saunders-Browne) in 2026.
Throughout the performance, this tiny cast of men, this band of brothers, scramble and dangle and heave their way up, over, and through a large revolving shipping container (designed by Andrzej Goulding). This genius piece of set design allows for a wholly unique and creative use of space to seamlessly convey the passage of time through the decades, with the actors effortlessly slipping into characters and locations from past, present, and future. Somehow it is never overwhelming, despite the frequent use of loud transitional music, sound effects, and an onslaught of visual projections that could threaten the fluidity of the production, however everything comes together with such precision and dedication that not a hair is out of place.
While the technical aspects of the show are commendable, special congratulations has to go to these four performers who somehow manage to remember large chunks of complicated and nuanced speeches, while leaping up the side of this monstrous freight cart or rolling into their next persona. The terror of war, and the confusing mess of reclaiming an identity left behind, are expertly conveyed through the choreography of the piece. The actors cram themselves into small spaces when the pressure closes in on Frank, throw themselves and each other up with the spray of gunfire around George, and keeping a wary distance from Nat as he suffers through the isolation of an abandoned Britain.
Joe Layton’s performance of Frankie is worthy of special mention, as he is given the extremely difficult task of portraying an aggressive, broken man haunted by unforgivable crimes committed in Iraq. Naturally an unsympathetic character, Layton handles the role with complexity and care so that, while we may not believe he is worthy of justice, Frankie’s descent into further brutality feels like watching a horrific, inevitable car crash in slow motion rather than a grunt who demands our understanding without purpose and a lot of swearing.
The only weakness of the performance is Anna Jordan’s script. At times pensive and heartbreaking, it risks becoming cliché when the focus switches to futuristic dystopian Britain. It is annoyingly vague, and with a lot of the run time dedicated to George’s experience with PTSD there is little opportunity for this futuristic section to define itself beyond some implications that Brexit caused it all. Nevertheless, the ideas are there, even if the suspension of disbelief into this speculative realm somewhat disrupts the flow of the other two stories.
Frantic Assembly have put together a show that is unafraid to confront fear, that attempts to discover a way back home when the way isn’t clear, that wows its audience with sharp, slick technical effects and brilliant performances. ‘The Unreturning’ is a piece of theatre that demands your attention, and then to go home and hug your loved ones.
PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre