Rebecca West’s wicked sliver of a debut novel, published in 1918, was one of the first to explicitly explore the psychological impact of war on men returning from the trenches.
Though physically unscathed, Captain Christopher Baldry, the returning officer, is lost in time. Eight years have gone in a blink. He can’t remember his wife, Kitty, or the life they had together. Instead he still thinks of himself as the giddy kid he once was, a young man besotted with his first love, a barmaid. It’s to her he writes when he first returns home; it’s her he yearns to see again.
West’s book is a strange, almost fable-like tale, in which sex and memory are entangled; it’s also an elegant, economical thing, only just topping 100 pages. It’s fair to say this elegance is not replicated in Tim Sanders’ musical adaptation. Sanders’ approach to the material is to steep everything in cliché – so very many clichés – to overstate what was understated on the page, to bayonet any lingering ambiguity.
The lyrics veer from the banal – “war is hell”, “suffering in silence”, and (of course) “no man’s land” – to the downright baffling. There’s some wonderful metaphorical mixology going on here – at one point someone sings about feeling like an “Indian chief to the manner born.” There’s also a deeply odd sequence in which the pioneering psychiatrist employed to jolt Chris back to the present, to make him combat-fit and marriage-fit again, sings an improbably jaunty number which rhymes “cups of tea” and “psychotherapy.” It seems like it was intended to be a little macabre, but even so it feels incredibly misjudged, like Regeneration with added jazz hands.
It also fails to convey the shifting sympathies of Chris’ cousin Jenny, the novel’s narrator, here somewhat sidelined, and an Odd Woman in the Gissing sense, who – in the book at least – finds herself moved by Margaret’s predicament, and perhaps a little resentful of Chris’s wife, Kitty. What Charlotte Westenera’s production does do well is explore the class divisions that complicate the already complicated story, Margaret, the former barmaid, has been worn down by life and now lives in deepest darkest Wealdstone with a wheezy husband who’s a good bit older than her. She sports a drab hat and a battered yellow raincoat while upper class Kitty wafts around in silken things.
Yet the production can’t resist a “why, Miss Jones, you’re beautiful” moment in which Margaret unpins her hair and is suddenly lovely, which rather goes against the spirit of the novel. Laura Pitt-Pulford, however, is fantastic in the role, nuanced, delicate, intelligent, with a fine strong voice. Zoe Rainey does a similarly good job with a less well drawn character, as Kitty, softening her colder, harder edges; her voice too is rich and glittering. Stewart Clarke, as Christopher, grapples valiantly with a role that gives him too little to do expect look pained and twitch a bit while slumbering in the garden and dreaming of the Front.
Good as they, as all the cast are, there’s not much they can do against the rain of inanity which permeates the song-writing. The group numbers are beautifully performed but the production as a whole is emotionally remote, which is quite a feat considering the knife-like source material, a story haunted by not one dead child but two, love that can never be requited, and the desperate roar of the First World War.