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Review: The Unreturning at Liverpool Everyman ****

What happens when the home and hearth we’ve dreamt about turns out not to be the place of refuge we’d imagined?

There’s certainly not much home sweet home in The Unreturning, Frantic Assembly’s latest production visiting the Everyman as part of a national tour.

The narrative spins as fast as the metal shipping container set as three stories, spanning the space of a century, bleed in and out of each other through the course of 100 frenetic minutes.

And the Everyman’s up-close-and-personal thrust stage means the audience (seemingly made up in large part of teenagers – Frantic Assembly is apparently on five British and international academic syllabuses) is drawn in to the maelstrom of emotions that emerge as the men’s worlds spin ever more out of control.

A triptych of characters includes George, home from the trenches in 1918, Frankie – who has been at the centre of some horror in Helmand circa 2013, and, peering eight years in to the future, Nat, a refugee from what one presumes is a post-Brexit dystopia where Britain has plunged in to a Syria-like civil war.

Writer Anna Jordan gives each protagonist a poetic prologue where their dreams of home are realised in very personal wishlist.

George (Jared Garfield), returning home to his wife Rose, wants to “drink tea, hear the clink of the china and the glug of the pour.”

The Unreturning. Photos by Tristram Kenton

Frankie (Joe Layton) wants a heroes’ welcome and to “lose myself in the face of my mum and my sister”, while Nat (Jonnie Riordan), taking a smuggler’s boat home from a tented refugee camp in Norway to try and track down his brother Finn (Kierton Saunders-Browne), wants “to greet the landscape, disappear in to it.”

But all three men are casualties of war, and the reality that unfolds on the streets of Scarborough, their shared home town, is inevitably quite different.

Director Neil Bettles and the hard-working quartet of actors make sure the action remains physical, pacy and slick on Andrzej Goulding’s multi-purpose container set, all sliding doors and folding walls, while Pete Malkin’s soundscape is both troubling and shimmering.

The cast take on a variety of roles, with Layton switching from beefy squaddie to tender and confused Rose and back again in one 360-degree spin of the set, while Garfield is compelling as the British tommy whose return to civvy street is increasingly overshadowed by harrowing memories.

Jordan’s tale certainly provides food for thought, even if the refugee strand of her story feels less rounded and satisfying than those of the traumatised soldiers.

And if home still isn’t sweet, there is at least a glimmer of hope for one character in the dramatic final minutes.

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