This has been the year for theatrical productions with a First World War theme – revivals of old plays (The Silver Tassie), debuts of new (Versailles), and now The Return of the Soldier this strange hybrid of an old story (by Rebecca West) and a new musical presentation (Tim Sanders and Charles Miller) has joined the milieu. Return of the Soldier marries a very modern musical sensibility to a story practically out of the pages of Edith Wharton – a young man from the upper classes (Stewart Clarke) is torn between his commitments to a woman of his class (Zoe Rainey) and his still raging love for a barmaid he fell in love with before the war (Laura Pitt-Pulford).
But piles of additional psychological layers stack up on top of this seemingly cut and dry story. First, there’s his cousin (Charlie Langham), who seems to be in love with Christopher herself. Then there’s the matter of one or two dead babies and some suppressed grief. And then there’s some really strange additional psychological stuff going on that had me wondering just what actually was going to constitute a happy ending and how in the world people of this age ever got by just pretending that they never felt anything. Frankly, Christopher was inconveniencing rather a lot of people by being honest and open: should he just shut up? From the point of view of an author writing in 1918, was the best outcome for the soldier to be a patriot? Did Rebecca West need to support the class system?
While all of these rich options were fighting for supremacy in my head, I got to listen to some very enjoyable Sondheim-esque music. Normally I complain about musicals not being … well … musical enough. I like to walk out of a musical whistling a tune. But in the case of this show, with its rather bleak story, an Irving Berlin-style romp did not seem appropriate. They could have gone for a musical style of the era (music hall tunes) but I think these looser compositions were more appropriate for the very modern considerations the plot brought forward. One notable departure was Dr Anderson (Michael Matos)’s tune “Head Master,” which seemed a very jaunty way to look at the science of trying to get people’s brains to work correctly. I enjoyed it a lot, but at the same time I enjoyed the very modern pieces that had several of the characters working out their contradicting struggles in aural harmony (while, in “real” life, their goals clash).
All in all, in the intimate space (and with the benefit of not knowing the plot or the ending), The Return of the Soldier was an extremely engaging new musical that rates at the top of the First World War shows that I’ve seen this year as well as being one of the rare shows that had me very eager to come back after the interval. It was very enjoyable as a chamber production, but with its deep psychological clashes, I think it may be headed for a larger stage before long.
(This review is for the opening night performance that too place on September 4th, 2014. It continues through September 20th.)