The Return of the Soldier is one of a number of WW1-themed productions out this year that, if nothing else, proves that theatre land is not entirely unaware of events in the outside world. Having always been a sucker for a new musical and with source material that gives voice to the rarely heard, it was one of the few that intrigued Civilian Theatre enough to be filled with a genuine sense of anticipation.
The production adapts Rebecca West’s novel about a shell-shocked captain who returns from war and turns the lives of the three female protagonists upside down. The original novel is remarkable for its frankness in tackling these issues before the war had even ended and presents an openness to issues of class and gender that reflects a Britain on the cusp of a series of social revolutions that ultimately were as important as the war in ushering in a post-Edwardian modern era.
The plot is simple enough but contains a refreshing moral ambiguity that makes it difficult to take sides with the characters. The damaged captain cannot remember his wife and instead has eyes only for his young love, a lower class girl he met years ago on Monkey Island. Now both married, they find themselves caught in the rapture of the life they could have had. Yet it is Margaret who must carry the burden of unfaithfulness and remember they are trapped within a fantasy of his creating. Eventually they must re-engage with the real world and he must face the trauma that stops him connecting with the present.
The war looms as a dark presence unmentioned in the background as he recuperates, and the unspoken knowledge that to be ‘cured’ means an expectation of a return to the frontline. The ‘return’ of the title has a multiplicity of meanings; it leads to the return home, the return to first love, the return to normality and, finally, the return to the front line.
The decision to turn it into a musical is a curious one and the limited space at Jermyn Street necessitates a chamber approach; it would be difficult enough to swing a cat in the space and it is a credit to Matthew Cole’s dextrous choreography that there were at least a couple of items that could be called dance numbers. This fluidity was generally matched in Charlotte Westenra’s direction that stopped the cast from tripping over one another, and managed to create two very distinct worlds on one very small stage.
The cast and musicians also deserve praise for modulating delivery to match their surroundings. One of the biggest criticisms reserved for Dessa Rose, a similar ‘big theme-little venue’ chamber musical at the Trafalgar Studios, was that it seemed to be produced with one eye on a larger theatre and during the bigger numbers the audience were subjected to a sonic assault. The Return of the Soldier was beautifully delivered, at exactly the right volume. Delivery matched the style and crucially it recognised that lyrically clarity does not necessarily equate to maximum volume.
Have a listen: