The Unreturning, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****
King Keich, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****
One man is a former First World War soldier struggling to return to a domestic life with the wife he adores, but riven and almost destroyed by shell shock sustained in the hell of the trenches. The second is an Afghan war veteran who has been sent home to await court-martial, after almost killing an Afghan detainee in his custody, and the third belongs to the near future, returning in 2026 to a devastated and almost deserted Scarborough from a refugee camp in Norway, in search of a younger brother lost in some English civil war.
This is Anna Jordan’s new play The Unreturning, co-produced by Frantic Assembly and the Theatre Royal Plymouth to coincide with the centenary of the end of the First World War, and now on tour across the UK; and it has to be said that in the detail of its study of war and its horrors, it adds little to the dozens of other pieces of theatre that have been made around this subject over the last four years.
What’s striking, though, is the fierce poetry of Jordan’s text, particularly in her exploration of future wars as yet unimagined; and the absolute command of total theatre shown by Frantic Assembly director Neil Bettles, and his cast and creative team.
Andrzej Goulding’s set is simple and magnificent, and superbly lit by Zoe Spurr. Peter Malkin’s score and soundscape is big, lush, lyrical, and almost filmic, full of driving energy.
And as ever with Frantic Assembly, the performances flow from intense monologue to naturalistic acting and superb, understated sequences of movement; in a style that seems made for this strange journey through time and space, to a place where history comes together in a single moment of pain, horror, longing and hope.
As a sharp reminder that theatre has more than one way of dealing with the world’s horrors, though, this week’s Play, Pie And Pint show in Glasgow offers a glorious burst of absurdist grotesquery in the shape of King Keich, a brief but hilarious post-Trump version of Jarry’s Ubu Roi – itself a spoof on Shakespeare’s Macbeth – written with ruthless satirical flair by the brilliant novelist and playwright Louise Welsh.
In this version – directed by Paul Brotherston of Blood Of The Young – the crown is seized by a bumptious gold-jacketed television game-show host and his equally amoral wife –played with memorable rambunctious brilliance by Grant O’Rourke and Meghan Tyler – after a dodgy vote in which he asks his viewers to vote on who should be king, and then insists that “the will of the people” must be obeyed.
The script, in other words, is full of Trump and Brexit tropes brilliantly deployed, from the useless speech made by Keich’s doomed liberal predecessor to the moment when Keich, tired of experts, decides to destroy his mobile phone in order to silence Alexa’s all-knowing voice.
And the play ends, appropriately enough, with Keich and his lady still triumphantly in power, singing a version of the Carpenters’ Top Of The World that’s aimed straight at the audience, and says, “You lot put me on the top of the world”. -JOYCE MCMILLAN