Pros: A powerful story, beautifully told with perceptive songs.
Cons: A string and piano accompaniment didn’t always do justice to the musical numbers.
I always prided myself on my knowledge of London’s theatre district. But I walked past the Jermyn Street Theatre three times before I actually found it. According to the programme, it was formerly the changing rooms for staff of the Getti restaurant upstairs. It certainly felt like it as I inched down a stairway leading to the studio theatre. Having said that, there was a warm welcome for patrons, even though it felt quite claustrophobic on occasion.
The Return of the Soldier is a riveting tale of lives fractured by the bloodiest of conflicts. It comes as no surprise that the original book was published in 1918; a story of such raw power could have only been written in real time. Similar events would surely have been played out for real as the nation came to terms with the emotional fallout of the Great War. Christopher Baldry returns home suffering with shellshock and mental agony of a man baring witness to unspeakable carnage. His frequent bouts of amnesia cause estrangement from his wife, Kitty who is made to feel like a virtual widow. Christopher’s passion for former lover Margaret Grey is rekindled as she reminds him of happier times. His cousin Jenny is on hand to lend Kitty moral support, although clearly has a crush on him and sees an opportunity as the rift grows. We also have Margaret’s husband, William. Poor, sweet William; so anxious to prove himself but can’t enlist for active service. How can he possibly compete with Christopher, the handsome wounded war hero and Margaret’s first love to boot?
The songs complement the story perfectly and brim with real passion. Margaret’s songs, both solo and duet, are particular standouts; ‘Am I What You Are to Me’ and ‘Now That I Know’ are emblems of a woman torn between love and duty. Other songs have a painful, fragile quality about them, particularly the duets ‘This is Not the Right Time’ and ‘Are You Satisfied’ performed convincingly by Christopher and Kitty. Although perfectly adequate, a solo cello and piano did seem to reduce the songs’ impact. The story nevertheless traces Christopher’s mental rehabilitation with great skill. He seems barely aware that three beautiful women are vying for his affections. However, is he really searching for the peace of mind he lost on a battlefield in France? Christopher is ultimately forced to confront his demons by Dr Anderson, a psychiatrist specialising in shellshock injuries. But will Christopher return to the front…and which woman will he choose?
This musical benefits from a strong book with songs that support the narrative. The cast are fine actors and singers; Stewart Clarke as Christopher is a commanding male lead; the beautiful Laura Pitt-Pulford is excellent as Margaret. Zoe Rainey as Kitty is aloof and vulnerable; and Charlie Langham is charming as cousin Jenny. Michael Matus doubles up as William and Dr Anderson, winning the most sympathy with his portrayal of spurned underdog William. Musicals tread a fine line between sincerity and sentiment, but this production gets it just about right. It’s sensitive but never mushy – quite an achievement for a musical.
Book & Lyrics: Tim Sanders
Composer: Charles Miller
Director: Charlotte Westenra
Producers: Guy James and Katy Lipson
Booking Until: 20 September 2014
Box Office: 020 7287 2875
Booking Link: https://www.eticketing.co.uk/jermynstreettheatre/list.aspx?tagref=52