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The Return of the Soldier
Jermyn Street Theatre
4th September 2014

★★★★☆

Stewart Clarke and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Christopher Baldry and Margaret Grey

Photography © Darren Bell

Inside Jermyn Street Theatre, The Great War is under way. For many, it's the absolute worst of times: husbands, fathers, sons and brothers all bravely enlist but don't all come back. 100 years on from the conflict, it's easy to disconnect yourself from the cruelty of war, but lest we forget, Tim Sanders has taken Rebecca West's novella and adapted it into a full length musical. The Return of the Soldier isn't the war as told from the trenches, with gunfire and blood, rather it explores what happens when a soldier does make it back home, but isn't the same man who went away.

Upper class ladies Jenny (Charlie Langham) and Kitty (Zoë Rainey) are taking tea in the garden as birds gently chirp to each other. It's calm and civilised - you could almost pretend that the whole world wasn't fighting with each other. However, this little microcosm of serenity is shattered when unexpected guest Margaret (Laura Pitt-Pulford) turns up to announce the return of a soldier. And her soldier isn't just any old soldier - it's Kitty's husband, Christopher (Stewart Clarke).

The basic premise is simple. Christopher is being sent home for a bit of R&R. Physically there's not a cut or a bruise on him, but having been caught in a blast, he's lost all memory of his wife. The shell-shocked captain has regressed 15 years to a less complicated time, when he was darting around on Monkey Island (no, that that Monkey Island) with Margaret. The first half is primarily scene setting for all of this, and whilst the performers do all show off a tremendous amount of talent, the book is rather tame.

It's not until after the interval that The Return of the Soldier goes from merely enjoyable to downright engaging. Director Charlotte Westenra gets a great deal more emotion out of the cast and with Sanders having taking great pains to establish each character, the action finally kicks off proper. It is a shame that it takes this long, but you are rewarded for your patience.

Stewart Clarke and Zoe Rainey as Christopher Baldry and Kitty Baldry

Photography © Darren Bell

The little laughs in the first half and the comedic arrival of Dr Anderson (Michael Matus) in the second are all down to Sanders. Whilst a bit of funny to break up the bleakness of the scenario is welcome, I'm not sure it's all been worthwhile, particularly as the pacing has suffered for it. Jenny has gone from our eyes and ears to just a spare wheel - it turns out that we don't need a narrator, but if Sanders really wanted to cut back on the character that much, maybe she just shouldn't be there at all. Langham is sweet enough, and her singing is beautiful, but she's very underused. Her role is simply to be sad for all the other characters.

In this adaptation, it's easy to dismiss Kitty as a hard-hearted bitch. She's rude about Margaret before she even meets her in person, making fun of the where the poorer woman lives and how she dresses. However, Kitty does genuinely love her husband and she's been anxious waiting for news for a long time. That kind of life or death worry is enough to make anyone a bit snarly. As for the class issues she blatantly has, Kitty is a product of her time. She met Christopher at a débutantes' ball - that alone is enough to tell you what kind of upbringing she's had.

It's easy to be open-minded when others have already put themselves out there to raise awareness and campaign for rights. It's much harder to be the first person to realise there is a problem and to speak out about it. And when the full extent of Christopher's amnesia is revealed, what woman would quietly stand aside and let her husband roll around in the garden with an old lover without getting a trifle mad?

Kitty's anguish, hidden beneath outward viciousness, is deeply moving. Although Sanders hacks away at Jenny's lines, he makes up for it by making Kitty a more complex character, giving her layer after layer. West's Kitty is one with whom we can sympathise from the very start. Sanders' Kitty however is one who takes rather more time to get us on side, as we try to work out whether we like her or not. It creates more interest. Rainey's performance is highly measured and subtle. This is a woman on the verge of breaking down, but like hell would she admit that to anyone, making the rare moments where the mask slips incredibly intense and powerful.

Zoe Rainey, Michael Matus and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Kitty Baldry, Dr Anderson and Margaret Grey

Photography © Darren Bell

Although William (Matus) is primarily used for comedy, he also succeeds in getting us to feel sorry for him. He's a simple man, and he knows he's landed a fairly good deal with Margaret. They're "not quite the lovers from romantic novels", but he's content with his lot, particularly when it involves "double jam doughnuts". Although sympathetically written and humorous, he does feel a little out of sync with the other characters at times, and this probably because he's largely an original character - Mr Grey is a mere mention in the novella, it's Sanders who brings him to life.

Much of the music by Charles Miller is pleasant, but instantly forgettable. With that said, The Return of a Soldier and Somewhere Else both have far more substance to them, with these melodies wisely reprised. The harmonies throughout the production, especially those between the three women, are always highly delicate and controlled. Technically, musical director Simon Lambert nails it.

With so much going on, Simon Anthony Wells uses panels to create different areas and stage exits. The result is a thoroughly elegant and beautiful design which captures the setting perfectly and that somehow doesn't feel cramped. Jermyn Street Theatre is an intimate space, but Wells makes it feel a lot bigger on the inside.

In many respects, the first half is a battle from which Sanders strategically retreats in order to have enough emotional fire-power to launch an attack in the second. The Return of the Soldier does take some time to become interesting, but it wins us over wholeheartedly by the end. A quintessentially English musical that has enough special moments to redeem the entire production.

The Return of the Soldier opened on 2nd September and runs until 20th September 2014 at Jermyn Street Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)



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