Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Return Of The Soldier - Review

Jermyn Street Theatre, London


Music by Charles Miller.
Book and Lyrics by Tim Sanders
Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Stewart Clarke and Laura Pitt-Pulford

There was a group of students from Mountview Drama School attending on the same night that I reviewed The Return Of The Soldier and they could not have chosen a finer master-class to demonstrate their pursued craft, for this tiny company, five strong, drip with excellence. Charlotte Westenra's production that premieres this troubling WW1 musical, marks another theatrical tribute that respects the centenary of the outbreak of "the war to end all wars".

Laura Pitt-Pulford, an actress whose name on any bill guarantees a classy performance, is Margaret, a barely happily married woman, whose feelings for a past flame of her youth are re-kindled when the dashing former beau inexplicably starts sending her love letters. Stewart Clarke plays Captain Baldry the gloriously moustachioed and patrician officer who captured her heart all those years ago. The tale unfolds and we learn that Baldry has long since married Kitty, a frightfully snobbish debutante, socially way above the common barmaid Margaret and that the Captain has just been sent back from the Front suffering from shell-shock (or PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) The PTSD has erased any memory of his marriage from his conscience, leaving him only to recall and yearn for his long lost love for Margaret. Rebecca West's novel, adapted by Tim Sanders is ripe for the grand sweep of a musical treatment. Pitt-Pulford's layered Margaret is a masterclass and we feel for her character's emotional dilemma, drawn back to the Baldry house (invited actually, by Kitty) to act almost as a "tethered goat" to try and re-kindle the injured officer’s cognisance of the present.

Making her second foray this year into the theatre of The Great War, Zoe Rainey, recently seen in Stratford East's revival of Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War! evokes both our contempt for her despicable treatment of Margaret, yet also touches a profound note of sympathy as she grapples with a husband who no longer not only recognises her, but burns with desire for his former love. Alongside Pitt-Pulford, Rainey's work is of the highest standard.

Clarke's Baldry is further evidence that this gifted young actor remains one to watch, whilst doubling up as Margaret's humbling bumbling husband William, as well as the manipulative psychiatrist Dr Anderson, Michael Matus is, as ever, excellent. There is a scene in act one where Margaret kneads dough as she talks to William and casting directors take note: a future Sweeney Todd that pairs Matus with Pitt-Pulford would be sensational.

Whilst the talent that visionary producer Katy Lipson, together with Guy James, has assembled is flawless, the same does not hold true for Miller and Sander’s writing. The melodies often fail to satisfy (notwithstanding several moments of pitch-perfect close harmony) whilst the ironic wit of Dr Anderson’s solo number Head Master lacks the incisive bite of Littlewood's near-perfect collection of war satire. As the story’s endgame plays out we learn of childrens' deaths. To lose one toddler in a plot is forgivable, to learn of two such fatalities is downright careless and notwithstanding the ending’s poignancy, the infant mortalities muddle the emotional thrust of the work, detracting from the raw brutal horrors of trench warfare and PTSD.

Flaws notwithstanding, The Return Of The Soldier is a fine piece of chamber theatre, with the cello and piano work of Simon Lambert’s band proving exquisite. In the tight confines of the Jermyn Street’s cockpit it remains an utter privilege to be able to see and scrutinise such an exceptional cast at work.

Runs to 20th September 2014

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