Theatre review: Home is Not the Place, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

IT’S not a showy piece of work, Annie George’s show Home Is Not The Place, based on an earlier piece known as The Bridge. One performer, one stepladder, one screen, one old tall desk of the kind from which schoolteachers once dominated classrooms across the British Empire; and with these basic materials, one of Scotland’s most powerful and interesting writer-performers gets to work, conjuring up the whole history of her family through her own effort to research the life of her Keralan grandfather PM John, who died aged 40 in 1945, two years before India won its independence.

Annie George’s story, Home Is Not The Place,  has links we can all share
Annie George’s story, Home Is Not The Place, has links we can all share

Home is Not the Place, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

John was a schoolteacher, poet and writer, who was studying to become a church minister at the time of his death. The family was part of Kerala’s large Christian minority, and when John died he left behind a young widow – who kept his memory alive for almost 60 years, until her own death in 2002 – and a family of five children, including Annie George’s father, who emigrated to Britain with his wife in 1967, leaving Annie behind in India for a couple of years, until she travelled alone to join them in 1969, aged just four.

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The family story, in other words, is both rich in historical significance, and full of contemporary echoes; and over a fascinating 70 minutes, George picks her way deftly through the linked narratives of her grandfather’s life in the turbulent years of Kerala’s cultural revival and India’s independence struggle, her parents’ troubled migration to a 1960s Britain where racism was rife, and her own life in Scotland, raising two Scottish children, and now, a little grandson.

In the end, some of her efforts to find her long-dead grandfather are frustrated; there’s an old portrait in her grandmother’s Kerala house, a few family memories, and the terrible story of how the box containing all his writings was destroyed by fire. Yet as George says, home is not the place where you live, nor the place you come from; but the place you carry inside you, that helps you know and understand yourself. In the story of her grandfather’s life, she finds both inspiration and a sense of kinship, which she is able to pass on to her audience. And in a world currently dominated by those who would seek to divide us, nothing matters more than that we should listen to each other’s stories, including this exceptionally powerful one of Empire and migration; and hear the heartbeat of shared history and common humanity that runs through them all.

JOYCE MCMILLAN