1n 1998, Kenneth Alan Taylor directed A Different Way Home at Oldham Coliseum, with Roy Barraclough taking on the challenge of playing the two siblings, Leslie and Maureen. Taylor reports loving the play from the moment he first saw the television version. Bringing it back to his home theatre twenty one years later and playing the leading roles himself is clearly a labour of love, and his outstanding performance feels as natural as it is heartfelt.
The play takes place in a gloomy living room and Celia Perkins’ immaculately detailed set says pretty much everything you need to know about its resident before the action even starts. Flying ducks and owl pictures adorn the walls, and the sideboard is cluttered with fringed lampshades and china dogs. It is no surprise, then, when Leslie shuffles in, wearing a baggy cardigan and baggy trousers and boasting about the wool coat he acquired from Burtons twenty years before. Speaking directly to his audience – as if we are an old friend come to visit – Leslie settles into an old armchair and chatters on about his cold, his sciatica and his irritating workmate, Sylvia Bickerstaffe. In between promises of a cup of tea (which he never gets round to making), we gradually learn about the recent death of his mother, with whom he has lived his entire life. We also learn that his youngest sister, Maureen, only lives around the corner, but rarely visits. It soon becomes clear that the depth of his grief for ‘Mam’ is pretty much matched by the depth of his contempt for his heartless and neglectful sister.
Leslie is of the generation when emotions were rarely discussed or displayed, and the most affecting moments in Taylor’s performance are when loneliness and neediness leak through cracks in an otherwise brave face. The complexity of his feelings for Maureen is also beautifully conveyed; one minute he tells us that he would ‘cut her dead’ if he saw her in the street, and the next minute he is rushing eagerly to the window at any sign she may be coming up the path.
The pace of this first Act is slow and meandering (a fairly precise reflection of Leslie’s state of mind) but it picks up in the second Act when we are introduced to Maureen (played in drag by Taylor.) Interestingly, A Different Way Home began life as a single-act play, and writer Jimmie Chinn only added Maureen’s part in response to a suggestion from Taylor and Barraclough. And yet it is this ‘afterthought’ that gives the piece its real ‘bite’ and adds (in retrospect) depth and poignancy to what has gone before.
For a start, Maureen is definitely given the funnier lines – the whole act is laced with acerbic wit and far more sharply written than the first. Additionally, it enables us to go behind the ‘neglectful’ persona provided by her brother and see a woman who grew up feeling herself to be unattractive and a disappointment to those around her. She had no expectations of love – until she met her husband. Having finally (and unexpectedly) found happiness, she and her Jewish husband were quietly rejected by her Catholic family, none of whom attended her wedding. Now a devoted wife, Maureen feels abandoned and misjudged by everybody – family, neighbours and friends. Listening to her forces us to reassess Leslie’s bitter portrayal of her and to recognise the partiality of the view that we bought into half an hour ago. It also gives the play a new dimension – not, now, just a gentle study of loneliness and grief, A Different Way Home becomes a poignant exploration of family and the bitter legacy of misunderstanding and judgement.
A Different Way Home feels utterly authentic, both in the specificity of its northern voice and in its forensic portrayal of the universal themes of old age, grief and family.Indeed, throughout the performance, there are constant murmurs of recognition from the audience. It is a gentle and moving piece of character-based theatre, and Taylor’s characterisation of Leslie and Maureen is faultless. He captures the staid, grief-laden heaviness of Leslie as perfectly as he conveys Maureen’s energy and sharp-edged defiance. We are left with real pathos; as Leslie waits for Maureen to show she cares by coming to see him, Maureen waits for Leslie to show that he wants her to visit: “He only had to ask.” In the end, they both lose out.
Photographs by Joel Chester Fildes