Lest we forget: The Return of the Soldier at Jermyn Street Theatre

Tuesday 2nd September, 2014 (first preview)

Even in her twenties, Rebecca West had plenty of material to draw on for her first novel ‘The Return of the Soldier’, having lived through the first world war herself and experienced the anguish of a turbulent love affair with married man HG Wells.  However, she adds an ingenious element to the plot by making her returning soldier, Christopher Baldry, a shell-shocked amnesiac.  Unable to remember his wife Kitty, he writes instead to a woman (Margaret Grey) he was in love with years before, now married herself, informing her that he is coming back to her with the intention of proposing.  The painful predicament is a unique way of exploring love and loss for all the characters, and the ‘return’ has a double meaning, in the sense of both his physical return to safety, and his psychological return to fitness and self-identification as a soldier.

This is a powerful drama, and in this musical version by Charles Miller and Tim Sanders at the Jermyn Street Theatre, we are not sure that the music quite manages to penetrate it.  It feels more like a play with songs, but there are plenty of high points, such as Margaret’s anguished ‘I know how this ends’, Baldry’s impassioned memories of the war he can’t leave behind ‘Leave me for dead’, and the lighter ‘Little Things I Need’, which portrays Margaret’s husband’s devotion and dependency on his wife, tinged with the awareness that he may lose her.  We also enjoyed ‘Headmaster’, a vaudeville-style satire on the newly burgeoning psycho-analytical business, although it didn’t really fit neatly into the tone of the rest of the piece.

Laura Pitt-Pulford has often excelled at playing exuberant, warm and emotional characters, notably for us as Mabel Normand in Mack and Mabel.  Her finest moments here are when she recaptures her youth through her renewed romance with Baldry, literally shedding the years before our eyes.  The warmth and humour in her relationship with her husband is also touchingly portrayed, although we were not quite so convinced by her as a dowdy middle-aged woman worn down by drudgery(!)  Michael Matus provided some much-needed humour and showed off his impressive versatility in the dual roles of Mr Grey, Margaret’s self-effacing but loyal husband, unable to enlist for the fighting but a dab hand at pickling vegetables, and Dr Anderson, an unorthodox psycho-analyst who has his own self-doubts about the way his skills are used to patch soldiers up and send them back to war.  His talent for characterisation, humour, and beautifully nuanced singing voice was well-used.  Stewart Clarke brings intensity and a powerful voice to the stage as the tormented Christopher Baldry.  Passionate in everything and desperate to escape the traumatic memories of war, his inner turmoil is always present, making the relived love affair as poignant as it is joyful.  As forgotten wife Kitty, Zoe Rainey perfectly conveys the brittleness of a privileged woman grappling with loss of status as well as the emotional pain of having her husband’s love and their history together apparently wiped away forever.  Her pain is evident through the mask of conformity and her cruelty to Margaret, and we feel her terrible dilemma – live with a stranger, or try to cure him and risk losing him again.  As Jenny, Christopher’s cousin and childhood playmate who still adores him from a distance, Charlie Langham is sweet-voiced and innocent, a calmer presence whose desire has already been thwarted and must remain well-hidden.

We do have another gripe – it’s a bugbear of ours that some composers haven’t harnessed the power of the internet to promote their music.  Perhaps there are contractual complications in doing this, but even a couple of song samples would have helped us to recall the music and remind ourselves how the various songs went.  At the end of the day, only truly exceptional music is readily memorable after a single hearing.

Overall, however, this is an engaging and intelligent drama, well-acted, sung and directed in a tiny space which gives it an intensity that can be overwhelming at times. This is a welcome interpretation of a deservedly classic story.

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