You may remember the film version of Rebecca West’s novel with Julie Christie and Alan Bates which tells the story of a shellshocked soldier’s return from the First World War.
When Christopher Baldry steps foot into his lovely home, rich in décor but
poor in love, he does not recognise his wife. But he does remember Margaret Grey, a humble married working class woman.
The scene is set for Charles Miller’s magnificent musical, which centres around the self, the secrets inside us, memories, the effects of war and, ultimately, how grief locks the soul. It may have a slower pace than the big blockbuster musicals, but it has enough three hankie moments to make Love Story feel like a walk in the park.
What is refreshing about this show, and the original book, is that there are no simply drawn stereotypes. Every single character has depth and their behaviour is not as predictable as you might expect.
The piece is anchored by the wonderful Naomi Slights as Margaret Grey, a woman who remains pure even though she has been living a lie. Slights imbues her with values and an inner purity. Her scenes with Marc Pickering, who plays her loyal husband, are delightful as she cares for him in a way no other woman could.
Pickering is delightful in two completely different roles. As Mr Grey, he depends on his wife for everything. And as a doctor called in to help with memory loss, he is snide on one level, yet completely understanding and fully aware of the sign-off racket whereby doctors give soldiers a false bill of good health so they can be sent back to war.
Chris Jenkins has a difficult job as the soldier of the title who is living two lives at once. But he manages to bring humour to the role and is totally believable, particularly during act two when everything unravels in his mind.
Salford-born Tessa Kadler has a gift of a role as Kitty the wronged wife. But she is no victim, and Kadler is in fine voice, revelling in many of the cutting lines she must deliver.
Esme Sears as cousin Jenny, the ears and eyes of the house, has beautiful vocals, and her haunted look makes complete sense once the revelations start to unfold.
Tim Sanders’ adaptation allows characters time to breathe and evolve. Although it is slightly too long, you will be engaged throughout.
The songs have a natural flow to them and the lyrics are sophisticated and reminded me of Howard Goodall’s musical, Love Story. Charles Miller’s music is grand and captures the empty opulence that greeted many middle-class men when they returned from war.
Charlotte Westenra directs with a real sense of scale, even though this is a small but perfectly formed chamber piece. Everything feels natural and well considered.
Leah Sams’ beautiful costumes and simple set design are perfect.
In fact, The Return of the Soldier ticks all of the boxes. It is moving, superbly acted, and highlights issues familiar to us all, including mental illness and the quick fix approaches which are still on offer.
Hope Mill recently had a successful crowdfunding campaign to stage this gorgeous musical. Every penny raised is well spent, because this is one stunning production.
We don’t give star ratings or scores. But if we did? A ten from Glenn!
The Return of the Soldier is at Hope Mill Theatre until 29th September 2018.