The Hope Mill Theatre’s latest musical theatre venture sees an adaptation of Rebecca West’s novel Return of the Soldier turned into a poignant and moving chamber musical set in the First World War.
Told by a remarkable cast of five, it’s a mesmeric story that explores a multitude of issues the war has caused in people’s lives. When upper-class soldier Captain Christopher Baldry (Chris Jenkins) returns from war hiding his suffering trauma, he has forgotten his wife and comes back desperately in love with his previous lover Margaret Grey (Naomi Slights.) Margaret is married to her husband William, but still longs for the passionate romance she had with Christopher, yet fears breaking her husband’s heart.
The two women at the centre of the piece, Kitty and Margaret go through a series of emotions that resonates with any era. Naomi Slights gives a sublime performance as Margaret, as her natural characterisation creates a warm and utterly convincing character that the truly audience root for. Despite her kind and loyal husband William doing everything he can to please her, she craves the passion she has with Christopher.
Tessa Kadler is remarkable at playing the façade that her character Kitty puts on to gloss over her tortured feelings. She is witty and strong-willed, but when her vulnerability seeps through it’s heart-breaking to watch, particularly in her emotionally charged song No Mans Land.
This production tackles the impact of the war on Christopher and Chris Jenkins captures his damaged nature with a distinct tenderness that really captures the audiences’ emotions. Troubled by his past and unable to grasp his future, his mind and masculinity is tarnished and he struggles to feel like the man he is. Jenkins’ gives an astounding performance that pulls on all the heart strings.
Bringing a lighter tone to the powerful production is Marc Pickering who plays both Margaret’s husband William Grey and the Psychiatrist. As the husband he excels at making the audience empathise with him. He is slow, shy and sheltered but so eager to please his wife. In the second act we are introduced to his excellent comedy timing as the smart and quick-witted psychiatrist. These completely contrasting roles display his immense versatility as an actor and he brings real light to the production as he delivers his show stopping numbers with both integrity and flair. Similarly, Christopher’s cousin Jenny is a character that could easily become lost, but Esme Sears packs a real punch as the strong young woman.
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