Rebecca West’s novella The Return of the Soldier, published in 1918 when she was just 25-years-old, was a striking debut.

As World War One still raged, she penned what was not only the only book published about the war, during the war, by a woman, but also one of the earliest literary explorations of what was then known as ‘shell-shock’, now redefined as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To frame this within a scandalous love triangle (actually ‘love tangle’ might be a more accurate description) and touching on Freud’s breakthroughs in psychiatry was bold indeed. To turn it into a musical may seem somewhat improbable but the latest production from the brave and innovative Hope Mill Theatre of a show only ever briefly seen in London in 2014 is actually surprisingly successful.

When Captain Christopher Baldry (Chris Jenkins) returns from war in 1916, he’s relatively untouched physically but profoundly damaged psychologically, so much so that he believes he is coming home to be reunited with his young lover Margaret (Naomi Slights). But he is actually married to Kitty (Tessa Kadler) who he doesn’t even recognise, and Margaret has married the bumbling but lovable William Grey (Marc Pickering). Meanwhile, Baldry’s younger cousin Jenny (Esme Sears), who lives with Kitty, has secretly loved ‘Chris’ since childhood.

With other secrets lurking and linking the protagonists, this is a tangled web indeed and the set-up also throws in broad domestic humour, as well as barbed commentary on class divisions and the cynical exploitation of notions of duty and honour, and the complicity of medical services in ‘curing’ damaged soldiers just so they can be sent back to the front line.

For the music to shine out of this as memorably as it does is quite an achievement for Tim Sanders (book and lyrics) and Charles Miller (music) while Charlotte Westenra’s direction is admirably clear given the complexities of the personal relationships and the broader social context. That said, the running time could probably stand some cutting and the final act’s tragic revelation feels a little rushed. The production is really transformed into something quite special, though, by the startlingly impressive performances of the five-strong cast (plus pianist Daniel Jarvis and cello player Ines Mota). Pickering’s transformation after the interval from the bumbling Mr Grey to the brilliant but troubled Doctor Gilbert Anderson is an especially crowd-pleasing triumph, but there’s really no weak link in this poignant acknowledgement of the centenary of the end of World War One.

By Kevin Bourke

Photos by Phil Tragen

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The Return Of The Soldier – The Musical is at Hope Mill Theatre, Pollard Street, Ancoats, until September 29, 2019. For more information, click here.