No winners in war. That’s the attitude of The Return of the Soldier, a spirited musical adaptation of Rebecca West’s debut novel which wreaks domestic devastation without firing a shot.
Captain Chris Baldry (Stewart Clarke) has been sent home from the Front to his bucolic, upper-class surrounds, shellshocked and with his memory shot. He remembers his cousin Jenny (Charlie Langham) fondly. But his wife Kitty (Zoe Rainey) he can no more love than even recognise the face of. His passions are all with an old flame Maggie (Laura Pitt-Pulford), a working-class barmaid who has a loving but humdrum marriage to another man.
The poignant titular number might have each of the woman singing of their desire for the long-awaited embrace of a war hero and a man, but all they’ll get is torn-up boy. "I’ve changed so much," the regressed soldier shrieks at them, like an immature gap-year backpacker. "More than you can imagine!" Conflict begets conflicted people.
Icy though still sympathetic (and without any truly hateful combatants, the concept of a war which as normal can have no winners is doubly grim), Kitty best vocalises her distress through snobbery. She protests that there’s a class gulf between Baldry and Maggie. Baldry digs in. So battle is waged between the expected normalities of his social and marital status (which would mean returning to Kitty), and what makes the man actually happy (running to Maggie).
If it’s a love story, it’s a bloody-minded one — and because the territory at stake is the the internal no-man’s-land of Baldry’s mind, the actual World War is made to seem more intractable and dismal than ever.
The homecoming army veteran with alienation or amnesia seems so eternal a character that it’s hard to believe West pretty much pioneered him in her 1918 novel. But pioneer she did, and the intervening years were aware that simplistic yet bold study in psychology was a thing of great potential. Even if they forgot it at times.
This chamber musical is such a comprehensive remembering, though. A dash of Freudian metaphor and intrigue is par for the modernist course. But Baldry’s broken mind is made so much more than just a psychological narrative. It’s there in Charles Miller’s brilliantly diffuse score — with understatement saluting the venue’s cosy dimensions, but no fear about pushing on independently — and in the very design of the set. Reflecting the contrary urges of Baldry’s two-sided brain, the humble interior of Maggie’s home is shoved right up against the neoclassical taste of Kitty’s garden.
In yet another smart piece of dualling, director Charlotte Westenra gets Michael Matus playing Maggie’s infirm, slightly sentimental husband William, as well as Dr Anderson, a specialist sent in to fix Baldry’s memory. In his sweet, appreciative way, William suspects Maggie of some dalliance with Baldry but says nothing. Anderson, meanwhile, realises his work could undo Baldry’s happiness. So, how much do you leave off? Facing both men is that very World War One dilemma, of whether to let something entrench. The show’s an infernal struggle like that — just as it should be.
The Return of the Soldier runs until 20 September at Jermyn Street Theatre, SW1. Tickets £22/£18/£16. Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.