A Different Way Home by Jimmy Chin at Whitefield Garrick.

A TEAR rolled down my cheek close to the end of the first act.

It was at that moment that I decided to write this review of A Different Way Home starring John O’Connell.

As I sat down in my seat, my toes resting on the edge of the large rug which marked the edge of the playing space, I surveyed the set in this incredibly intimate theatre. One armchair, one dining chair, and two small tables were all that adorned the stage. The set, a single wall with a window draped in tired floral curtains and nets, reminiscent of those in my own late grandmother’s terraced house. A few ornaments dotted on the two tables and a solitary silver photo frame.

A pile of Christmas cards and a few envelopes completes the inventory of this sparse set. Despite the minimalism of the set, it felt entirely authentic as a representation of the living room of an aging single person living alone. Knowing that this was a one-man-show I wondered how the actor would keep the audience’s attention in such an ordinary space.

The first act is a monologue by Leslie, an older single gentleman, who recently lost his mother with whom he lived. His natural way of speaking rambled between anecdotes, gossip about the neighbours, and recurring segments of the incredibly moving story of the final day of his mother’s life. Each time I would feel the bitter pain of loss anticipating the death of the mother, I would be caught off guard, by an amusing anecdote or a racist comment; the sort of comment that my grandmother would make which caused the whole family to squirm with embarrassment; the sort of comment which would prompt us to apologise for her “She’s set in her ways; a product of her era.” The sort of comment which we futilely tried, on many occasions, to convince her not to repeat.

Author, Jimmy Chinn, beautifully captures the character of a generation which has now all but disappeared, but which should not be forgotten. A generation of people who were unapologetic about the way they saw the world. He plays wonderfully on the comedy which comes from the awkwardness of saying that which is now deemed inappropriate or rude. O’Connell, with the guidance of director Andrew Close, played magnificently this character with the authenticity needed to make the audience excuse the inappropriate views of the character in the same way I used to do with my grandmother.

In summary Act One was both comedy and drama; a masterful delivery of light and shade. The search for this beautiful rollercoaster of emotions is what keeps me coming back to watch theatre. The hour-long monologue of act one ended with the audience hanging on O’Connell’s every word, tears on cheeks and lumps in throats.

Act two opened with a giggle from the audience at what can only be described as a man in a dress and a wig. O’Connell entered the stage as Maureen, Lesley’s sister. It was impossible not to recognise the strong masculine jawline, Adam’s apple, and the large hands of a man. However, O’Connell’s commitment to the character was absolute. Within a few minutes I could see none of these male attributes, I could only see Maureen.

Again, O’Connell’s performance was masterful. I, along with the rest of the audience, was drawn into the character and the story. Like in the film Nanny MacPhee where the wart covered witch gradually morphs into an attractive woman, I felt all traces of O’Connell dissolving away and the character of Maureen becoming yet stronger and more authentic as the act progressed. It is in plays like this, that Shakespeare’s words “Think when we talk of horses that you see them.” are particularly relevant. The master playwright reminds us that in live theatre the audience’s commitment to seeing is just as important as the performer’s commitment to being. But for this audience member O’Connell made ‘seeing’ Maureen easy.

The second monologue was again beautiful mixture of light and shade, comedy and drama; this time with more emphasis on the comedy. Within a few minutes of the start of the act the audience was bouncing from one big belly laugh to the next which continued at intervals throughout the remainder of the play.

By the end of the show we — the audience — had been entertained, amused and moved by a masterful and poignant performance. Congratulations to John O’Connell, director Andrew Close and all of the team at Whitefield Garrick Theatre.

Not to be missed “A Different Way Home” will be staged at Bolton Little Theatre on Friday, February 23 and at Summerseat Players Theatre, Ramsbottom on Sunday, February 25.

Alfred Howard