Theatre Review: THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Chris Jenkins as Christopher in THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER. Photo: Phil Tragen

Chris Jenkins as Christopher in THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER. Photo: Phil Tragen

THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER is a beautiful, emotional piece of theatre

The latest stunning addition to the Hope Mill Theatre’s impressive repertoire of musicals, THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER is a beautiful, emotional piece of theatre. Skillfully directed by Charlotte Westenra, the piece tells the tale of Christopher Baldry, a captain in 1916 who returns from France, unable to remember his wife and still believing himself to be in love with a previous affair. It’s a sorrowful, thought-provoking story that brings several questions to mind.

The quaint Hope Mill Theatre is transformed by set and costume designer Leah Sams. Divided in half, the staging represents the class divide wonderfully represented throughout the story. Sams’ stunning costumes also demonstrate this, with Jenny and Kitty in a variety of elegant gowns and Margaret always in her same blouse and skirt. Aaron J Dootson’s lighting design also melds perfectly with the atmosphere created by Charles Miller’s stripped back music. This intimate venue is perfect for this score with musical director Daniel Jarvis on piano and Inés Mota on cello making up the entirety of the “band”. Miller’s music is just stunning and Tim Sander’s lyrics blend extremely well with it, his poetic script lending itself wonderfully to this often dreamlike story.

The title role of our soldier, Christopher Baldry, is played by Chris Jenkins who brings an unpredictable and often sinister energy to this character, while still remaining sweet and sympathetic at times. It is a deep, considered performance and is an indicator of what is to come for Jenkins.

Chris Jenkins as Christopher and Esme Sears as Jenny in THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER. Photo: Phil Tragen

Chris Jenkins as Christopher and Esme Sears as Jenny in THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER. Photo: Phil Tragen

Throughout most of the first act, you struggle to sympathise with Christopher’s wife, Kitty. Played by Tessa Kadler, she is understandably bitter and extremely jealous of Margaret and though her reaction to the situation is rational and to be expected, it doesn’t put her in the best light and at times, you struggle to see why Christopher ever married her. It is only in act two when Kadler sings the mournful and emotional NO MAN’S LAND, that you truly begin to see Kitty’s plight. Her character is a good representation of attitudes to mental health at the time, and often still today, as Kitty calls Christopher “weak” and tells Jenny that she may as well be “one of the war widows”.

Naomi Slights, who plays Christopher’s first love, Margaret, artfully flits between her two sides, the weathered but comfortable side she has with her husband William, and the passionate excitement of new romance with Christopher. The opening number in act two, OUR ISLAND LIFE portrays Christopher and Margaret’s blissful happiness but also shows the effect that inevitably has on the happiness of other characters. Slights really lets go during I KNOW HOW THIS ENDS, her voice cracking in all the right places to really hammer home the sadness of this song.

Tessa Kadler as Kitty and Esme Sears as Jenny in THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER. Photo: Phil Tragen

Tessa Kadler as Kitty and Esme Sears as Jenny in THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER. Photo: Phil Tragen

Esme Sears does a lovely job of as the naive and innocent Jenny, Christopher’s younger cousin. Though she does get a pivotal character moment with Margaret as she reminds her what Kitty has lost, her character does seem a little like a spare part, observing and supporting and doing little else. There is a moment between Jenny and Christopher that could have been extremely interesting if pushed further but was left unexplored, and as a result felt unnecessary.

Marc Pickering plays the roles of William Grey, Margaret’s husband, and the progressive Doctor Anderson. The distinctions between these characters are a testament to Pickering’s skill as an actor, and he provides some of the most entertaining moments in the show. THE LITTLE THINGS I NEED is sweet and heartwarming, providing a little respite to this somewhat heavy subject material. William is undoubtedly the most lovable character in the story, though you do almost feel sorry for Margaret, as William is so dependent on her, yet it’s also easy to feel sorry for William, who deserves someone who truly loves him. The Doctor’s HEADMASTER is another highlight, unsettling yet humorous, as he addresses the audience directly.

Bittersweet, sorrowful, and ironically, unforgettable, THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER brings up important, relevant topics that deserve to be discussed. Not to be missed.

(4 / 5)

THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER runs at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester until 29 September 2018. 

About Lucy Moore

Lucy is a nineteen-year-old aspiring actress from Glossop. She is currently studying Music Theatre at the University Of Central Lancashire and hopes to move onto a career in performance. She also has interests in reading, writing and music.