They say there are two sides to every story. That’s certainly the case in Jimmie Chinn’s A Different Way Home, in which two members of the same family each share their viewpoint on a feud that’s kept brother and sister apart for years. While each believes they’re in the right, the play ultimately reveals that had they only talked to instead of about each other, life could have worked out very differently. Though its structure and staging are relatively simple, the play is a cleverly composed lesson in the dangers of taking character narration at face value, poignantly performed by Steven Mann and Sarah-Jane Vincent of the Unusual Theatre Company.
Set in 1986, the play’s presented as two monologues. The first of these comes from Leslie, who stayed in the family home to take care of his elderly mother while his three siblings moved away. Two of them started a new life on the other side of the world – yet for some reason Leslie’s particular wrath is reserved for Maureen, the youngest, who married a Jewish man and moved just around the corner. His moving, meandering account of the day his mother died is peppered with detours down memory lane, but returns again and again to vicious recriminations against his sister for her rejection of their family.
Fade to black; Leslie’s gone and in his place is Maureen. At first glance, it seems his depiction of her was accurate, as she turns up her nose at the state of the old house and shares juicy gossip about her childhood friends, who still live next door. But as she turns to the subject of her brother, it becomes clear he isn’t exactly perfect either, and that Maureen’s decision to distance herself from the rest of the family may not have been as one-sided as we’ve been led to believe. Ultimately, as she fills in the gaps left by Leslie in the family history, we realise that the pointless disagreement between these two flawed and stubborn characters hinges almost entirely on a simple failure to communicate.
The influence of Jimmie Chinn’s literary hero Alan Bennett is obvious in the play’s direct, conversational style (though it’s never completely clear who Leslie’s addressing; his obvious loneliness seems to suggest a casual visitor is unlikely) and northern setting. Originally written as a short radio play, the plot is driven by script and character – the only props in Val Collins’ production being a battered armchair and a hankie – and therefore demands two compelling performances in order to hold the audience’s attention throughout. Steven Mann is particularly strong as the grief-stricken Leslie; even when he’s saying nothing at all, we can see the pain of his mother’s loss etched on his face. Both he and Sarah-Jane Vincent have a very natural, chatty delivery that works well in a small space, the only downside to this being that those furthest from the stage may have to strain to hear some of the more confessional moments.
A Different Way Home is a poignant and at times quietly humorous study of grief, isolation and family relationships – a story that will speak to us all in some way, and may well make you want to get straight on the phone to your loved ones, if only to say hi.
A Different Way Home is at Canal Cafe Theatre until 30th July, then at Greenside @ Infirmary Street, Edinburgh from 4th-26th August.