The Return of the Soldier continues at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London until 20 September.
Simon Anthony Wells’ set for The Return of the Soldier is poignantly evocative of the period in a year when we are thinking so much about the First World War which began exactly a century ago. One side of the stage is centred on Margaret and William Grey’s relatively humble kitchen (fabulous old cooker) with the other more or less representing the Baldrys’ wealthy house and garden with trellis and flowers.
Based on a 1918 Rebecca West story, The Return of the Soldier is about a traumatised officer (Stewart Clarke) returning home with amnesia. He can remember his youthful love for Margaret (Laura Pitt-Pulford) but all memory of his marriage and his wife has gone. It was dramatised as a film in 1982 with Glenda Jackson, Julie Christie and Alan Bates and now lends itself rather well to musical treatment as a five-handed chamber piece. And Jermyn Street theatre is an ideal venue because its size and resonance means you can have sincere singing without mics.
Charles Miller’s music purrs along although there’s not much accessible melody except for a single recurrent motif and an entertaining – but actually rather chilling – ragtime number nicely delivered by Michael Matus in Act II. There are also two fine quartets which really exploit musical theatre’s potential for expressing four individual sets of emotions simultaneously.
Matus’ acting is outstanding both as the good, vulnerable husband who isn’t well enough to fight and as the debonair but intelligently pragmatic doctor exploring early Freudian thinking as he tries to cure the eponymous soldier. Pitt-Pulford finds plenty of anguished resignation in Margaret and achieves a terrific contrast in the carefree scenes with her former lover Christopher Baldry. Zoe Rainey as Mrs Kitty Baldry is icily proprietorial but also frightened and brittle. And Charlie Langham does well as Baldry’s worried young cousin who knows all the background and can see every point of view.
All in all it’s an enjoyable show with plenty to commend, although some of Tim Sanders’ lyrics leave a lot to be desired. ‘In my little way’ and ‘to the manner born’ (thanks, Shakespeare) are clichés and it does the text no favours to keep repeating them. There’s too much of this sort of banal stuff too: “With arms to hold and lips to kiss all we wanted was this.”