Frantic Assembly’s latest project “The Unreturning” arrives at Theatre Royal Stratford East in January 2019. This time, their celebrated physicality explores the lives of three Scarborough men returning from separate wars: a shell-shocked English serviceman returning from France in 1918, a dishonourably dismissed soldier returning from a military tour in Iraq in 2013, and finally, a refugee desperately trying to return to a war-torn dystopian England in 2032. This ambitious play addresses a series of contemporary issues with real innovation. It left a rather frenzied and contagious atmosphere of excitement among a group of school-children attending the performance at the Everyman in Liverpool and is sure to capture the minds of many more in its run into 2019.

“The Unreturning” examines, among many things, the impact of war on masculinity. Beginning with three monologues from these homeward bound men, Anna Jordan’s rhythmic writing excels in capturing the anxieties and insecurities associated with manhood throughout history. This couldn’t be more pertinent in our times, following World Mental Health week in October, and the centenary of the end of the First World War in November. Jordan explores our somewhat stubborn cultural response to these hardships. In her play, little seems to have changed in the hundred years since 1918: “You need to pull yourself together, son. Be a man George.”: words we might conceivably hear today, and therefore charged with real poignancy.

Shifting through perspectives and time gives weight to these issues and invites us to question the rigidity of societal roles for men in the present day. Seconds after seeing George’s vulnerability, we are thrown through time to witness a familiar contemporary view of masculinity in Frank: hands in pockets, head facing the floor, and mumbling the response of “I’m fine” when asked what’s wrong. We are also shown the opposite end of this spectrum – of hypermasculinity, physicality and lad-culture – when Frank returns home from his tour in Iraq. His friend tells him, in a teasing but nonetheless sincere manner, that: “they’re looking for work at the doors on Diva’s – if you don’t mind getting your head kicked in now and then.”  Both roles, in Frantic Assembly’s view, are literally suffocating, as we see their physical depictions of claustrophobia come into the forefront, experimenting with props and each other.

Amidst this turbulence, the 2032 man returning to his homeland might seem out of place. Yet, this storyline seems to be exploring another aspect of our society: that of the journeys of immigrants and refugees, and their status upon arrival in their new country. We first meet Nat in Norway, planning his return to war-torn Scarborough and hopeful of reuniting with his lost brother. His departure also seems influenced in part by his social status in Norway, currently an enlightened and socially responsible country, but now is xenophobic in this sad vision of the future: “My government wants to say goodbye to you people.” Nat must undergo a gruelling and uncomfortable journey home. Anecdotes and conversations about previously failed journeys alert us to contemporary crises with real pathos. Of course, the set has significance here: the full 100 minutes is played in a rotating shipping container, that whirls around with particular pace on Nat’s journey home: “I can’t see my hands in front of my face.” The flashes of artificial light and the glimpses of fear as the storage unit rotates are evocative and bewildering.

I left the theatre most absorbed with the storylines of 2013 and 1918, with 2032 seemingly taking a back-seat. Initially I suspected this to be due to the impressive ability of the former, but upon reflection, the acting ability of Jonnie Riordan as Nat was no less impressive than his fellow actors Jared Garfield, Joe Layton and Kieton Saunders-Browne. Perhaps the reason I was initially less affected by this storyline was that I have been fortunate enough never to bear the burden of living as a refugee or asylum-seeker – whereas my knowledge of British conflict has been regularly rekindled through the national curriculum or annual commemorations, and I can try to live through that experience vicariously. Aligning Nat’s equally agonising experience with his historical counterparts, therefore, is not only inventive, but important.

“I listen to the break of the waves, will them to be gentle with me.” Frantic Assembly’s depiction, on one level, simply of experience, and on a deeper level, of living through conflict, is fresh, original, and speaks to this age. These four men somehow portrayed 25 characters in a surely exhausting interval-less performance. The manoeuvring between roles was brilliant, and I defy you to leave the theatre without experiencing the thrill felt by those Liverpool students watching at the Everyman. A must-see.

Words by Ronan Gerrard.

Frantic Assembly’s The Unreturning will play at Theatre Royal Stratford East from Wednesday 16th January to Saturday 2nd February. For more information visit Frantic Assembly.

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