Review: A Different Way Home at Canal Cafe Theatre

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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… ūüėČ

Review: Actor Awareness scratch night at Canal Cafe Theatre

Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know anything about Actor Awareness. Run by Tom Stocks, the campaign¬†was set up two years ago to fight for equality and diversity in the arts, regardless of background. Last Monday, Actor Awareness¬†presented their first scratch night, featuring six new short plays all based around the theme of working class. I bought my ticket¬†because a¬†friend¬†had¬†written one of the plays, and¬†it was a really enjoyable evening, with a fascinating¬†selection of plays and some brilliant¬†performances.

The scratch night took place at the Canal Cafe Theatre, an intimate setting perfect for this kind of event. After each play, the audience were invited to give feedback – good or bad – to help the actors, writers and directors going forward. This had the potential to be a bit¬†awkward, particularly if the feedback wasn’t all good, but it was all very constructive, and all the comments¬†were taken in the spirit in which they were intended.

One of the most interesting aspects of the night was how varied the submissions were; if I hadn’t known in advance what the common theme was, I’d never have guessed. And they also covered the whole spectrum of emotions – from laugh out loud comedies like R(ex)ception and Netflix and Chill with Bae, to¬†heartbreaking dramas C’est la Vie and 9 Cans¬†and a Quarter Bottle.

We began with R(ex)ception, a short but very funny piece written by Francesca Mepham and directed by Adam Morley, about two co-workers, who also just happen to be exes. Naturally, hilarious awkwardness ensues as they try to work out their differences, in a very public forum. In addition, the play makes clever use of a third actor to separate the scenes and involve the audience in the story. My only complaint was that it was over too soon; the banter between the two exes was brilliant and I wanted to see more.

R(ex)ception by Fran Mepham
Photo credit: Alishia Love

Next was Garnet and Gordon, an intense and¬†powerful play written by Francesca Wright and directed by Gaz Wilson. This is one I think we can all relate to; we’ve all had someone we’d rather avoid sit down next to us at the station or bus stop. But what’s interesting about this piece is how both the main characters clearly have more going on than initially meets the eye. I’d love to see the story developed further and get to the bottom of how both men found themselves sitting on that bench.

C’est la Vie, written and directed by Stephanie Perry, is an extract from a longer play about three couples (though we only saw two in this excerpt). The piece examines love through the eyes of each couple, and follows them through the ups and downs of their relationships, until a tragic set of circumstances brings them together. This play was really well acted, but just seeing an excerpt meant¬†it was hard to properly¬†get into it or know at what point of the story we’d come in. I’d love to see the full play, though, as it¬†was clearly¬†heading in an interesting direction.

C'est la Vie by Stephanie Perry
Photo credit: Alishia Love

Act 2 opened with 9 Cans¬†and a Quarter Bottle, written and directed by Seamus Mcnamara. Along with¬†a few¬†other members of the audience, I didn’t completely follow¬†what was going on with this one until the writer explained, at which point a lot of things suddenly made sense. Nonetheless, it’s still a very hard-hitting and moving piece, which was constructed from real accounts of living with drug addiction. The play’s an interesting mix of emotional, hilarious and just plain odd; I’d love to watch it again now, having had some insight into what it’s all about.

Family Estate, written and directed by Lawrence Crane, is a snapshot of life for a¬†couple struggling to make ends meet – again, something many people can relate to. As he prepares to go out on a risky job (details of which remain unclear), she tries to talk him out of it. The back and forth argument is clearly one they’ve had many times before, and there’s a sense of things escalating. This play, too, feels¬†like the beginning of a longer piece; it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, leaving the audience eager¬†to know what happens next.

And finally, Netflix and Chill with Bae, written and directed by the show’s organiser,¬†Tom Stocks. After some pretty heavy material, it was great to end the evening on a lighter note; this play is very funny because it’s totally real. We’ve all been on¬†bad dates, and we’ve all experienced¬†that inner monologue analysing every detail of what’s going right or wrong. What’s great¬†about this play is that its¬†characters are instantly likeable, and by the end you’re really rooting for them to get together, even though on paper they seem totally mismatched.

Netflix and Chill with Bae by Tom Stocks
Photo credit: Alishia Love

The next Actor Awareness scratch night has already been announced for February, and the theme is ‘Women’s night‘. So if you’re a female writer or director and fancy sending in a play on that theme that’s under 15 minutes long, this is your chance… Visit the Actor Awareness website for more details.

Can‚Äôt see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don‚Äôt know why but I‚Äôm working on it‚Ķ ūüėČ