A Different Way Home

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Oldham Coliseum.

2 February 2019.

Jimmie Chinn’s A Different Way Home unpicks a bitter estrangement between siblings Leslie and Maureen. Split into two monologues, the play tells one story from each of their perspectives, with actor Kenneth Alan Taylor playing both brother and sister.

Leslie has lived with his mother all his life, and he recounts the events leading up to her recent death. Maureen tells of her love for her husband, which acted as a catalyst for a falling out with her family.

Each reflect back on their lives within the familiar setting of their mother’s front room. With the pair of pot dogs on the side board, a trio of china ducks hanging on the wall and some net curtains waiting to be twitched, it’s a backdrop that’s launched countless northern dramas before. Yet, Celia Perkins’ design also starkly captures an encroaching darkness – the walls are black, except for a few triangles of flowery wallpaper beneath frugal pools of lamp light.

Despite the period feel, and the characters’ trips down memory lane, nostalgia is in short supply. Chinn’s play is actually set in 1998. The 1950s style decor is the result of a mother and son stuck in the past – both afraid to spend money on fitting radiators or getting the phone installed.

To a large extend that peculiarity passes us by during Leslie’s story-telling, only to be exposed later by Maureen’s ‘outsider’ eye. Similarly, he spends much of the first half promising to make a ‘brew’ that never materialises, while she discovers the kitchen cupboards are bare and there’s “no sign of a tea bag out there”.

“People don’t know the half of it!” both characters say at some point, and the play’s power lies in how it gradually allows the audience to assemble some sort of ‘truth’ from two contrasting versions of it. Not just about tea bags, but about prejudice, aspiration, pride and love.

Chinn places Maureen and Leslie within a wider community. Over 40 characters are mentioned, and the tight-knittedness of it all can seem both reassuring and claustrophobic. The sounds of traffic, barking dogs and people passing by, can all be heard through the front door. No one’s secrets are safe and it’s all too easy to feel judged by friends and neighbours. Although Maureen and Leslie’s family isn’t the only one riddled with secrets and rifts.

Both the play and production keep things restrained, there’s no descent into caricature or sensationalism. While the conversational asides to the audience can feel stagey, the writing itself has a pleasing natural rhythm to it, and profound truths are revealed almost incidentally. Chinn’s script also has an eye for the telling detail – the blue and white curtain drawn around the mother’s hospital bed, or the bereaved son coming home to a house in darkness for the first time ever.

The play’s two halves satisfyingly click together but contrast in mood. Leslie’s opening monologue is a more static and sombre affair. The grieving son is seemingly rooted to his armchair, as the clock ticks and no one comes to call. Maureen’s sharp humour lifts the mood in the second act. Returning to the family home, she restlessly paces the room, roots around in drawers, and checks for dust – all the while, itching for a ‘fag’.

It’s a bit of a homecoming for the production team too, with Taylor having directed the play’s premiere at the Coliseum twenty one years ago, and Perkins designing that original show.

Noreen Kershaw’s assured direction delivers a tight focus, minimal fuss and perfect pacing. She ensures nothing gets in the way of Taylor’s skilful and unshowy performance, which effortlessly shifts between comedy and pathos.

A Different Way Home is a bit of a slow burn. As thoughts and feelings pile up, and things begin to fall into place, it’s increasingly affecting. And in a strange way, this 20-year-old tale of entrenched perceptions, simmering resentments and a family divided by prejudice, somehow feels more timely than it should.

Oldham Coliseum

Images by Joel Chester Fildes.

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