What we leave behind

The Return of the Soldier – Jermyn Street Theatre, until 20 September 2014 (Tickets)

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 tacklingThe Return of the Soldier, Tristan Bates Theatre, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Stewart Clarke, 2014. Courtesy Darren Bell 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 Return of the Soldier, Tristan Bates Theatre, Zoe Rainey and Stewart Clarke, 2014. Courtesy Darren BellThe 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.

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The war poets find their voice with The Tiger Lillies

Micro-review: A Dream Turned Sour – The Tiger Lillies @ Battersea Arts Centre

It remains questionable whether A Dream Turned Sour can be considered as theatre but since it acts as one of the closing shows of the 2014 LIFT Festival, and has otherwise been ignored by the massed ranks of music critics who are clearly more enamoured by the potential for a dream collaboration between Dolly and Metallica at Glastonbury than in writing about this warped, reimagining of the celebrated poetry of the first world war, it is up to Civilian Theatre to share its thoughts.

Tiger LilliesTo those not experienced in The Tiger Lillies it is a forbidding opening – ‘Death’ repeated over and over in a gravelly, atonal voice that oppressively (and impressively) fills the great space of the Battersea Arts Centre main hall. It is the start of a performance (and with The Tiger Lillies it most certainly is a performance) by a band at complete ease with what they do – and so they should be having successfully mined the furrow of alternative cabaret for over two decades.

Their strange mix of Kurt Weill-esque cabaret, gypsy, gothic humour, and operating in a register that veers between the rasp of Tom Waits and a startling falsetto underpinned by a ferocious operatic power is quite unlike anyone else. It is certainly hard to imagine another band undercutting the reflexive conservative styling that we tend to put on the work of the war poets with quite such vigour and zeal.

The Tiger Lillies have reclaimed the bitterness and the hatred, the terror and the contempt for the generals back home, that often gets lost amongst the plaudits and the GCSE-syllabus analysis. There is a black humour in their renderings of ‘Rendezvous With Death’ and ‘God How I Hate You’ that forces you to go back to the original readings to realise the horror that the lines contain.

Others, like Wilfred Owen’s ‘Nothing Ever Happens’, sound so at ease in their new home it is hard to imagine them in any other way. However the disgust never goes away and the venom builds to such a furious, glorious crescendo of disgust at those most famous lines ‘Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori’ that the audience must nearly cower at the assault.

Despite the most curious style of delivery, there is great articulacy in the delivery by frontman, Martyn Jacques. Each poem has been carefully thought through to maximise the impact through presentation and the words are never lost despite the cacophony of noise coming from the three piece.

Fans of The Tiger Lillies can be assured they have not dampened their natural tendencies as a sop to the serious subject matter, and fans of the war poets can be assured that the poems have been treated with the care and intelligence the power of the writing deserves.

Listen to Dulce et Decorum Est by The Tiger Lillies

More about The Tiger Lillies

More about Lift Festival 2014