If you grow up in a stereotypical “one horse town” where everybody knows everybody else’s business then the chances are at some time you are going to want to leave and make a life for yourself somewhere else. If the town you live in is also rather old fashioned and you are a gay teenager on the cusp of coming out, then that move to the big city might take on slightly more urgency. This then is the story told in Tommy Murphy’s Strangers in Between having its European premiere at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington.
In the King’s Cross district of Sydney, a very handsome, well-built young man by the name of Will (Dan Hunter) pops into his local bottlo (off-licence for my non-Australian readers) to get some drinks before heading out into the strip. The shop assistant is a personable young man who, despite what it says on his jumper, is called Shane (Roly Botha) and, as it’s only his second day on the job, is pretty inept. Luckily, for Shane, this ineptitude means that he gets longer to talk to Will than a normal bottlo transaction would allow. As they are talking, a rather camp guy comes in looking for wine. He is older than the boys – probably on the wrong side of 40 – but is very relaxed and at ease with himself. His name is Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown) and is obviously an outrageous flirt. Eventually, everyone completes their purchases and leaves the bottlo with Shane and Will having arranged to meet again. Later, Shane finds himself in a bar where he bumps into Peter again. The two of them get on well and Shane opens up about his life back in Goulburn with his family, and particularly his rather violent brother Ben (Dan Hunter). Shane also talks about Will, who he has seen a few times since their initial meeting. But he also has lots of questions about life itself like “where to keep honey” and “should he use fabric softener” and seems to instantly believe he can trust Peter and ask him anything. It seems that everything is good in Shane’s life. He has met a nice guy in Will and found a friend in Peter but, as his demons come back to haunt him, the three men find their relationships tested to the limit.
Strangers in Between is a thoroughly enjoyable play from the first moment, as a lust struck Shane stands behind his counter staring at Will right through to the really sweet scene at the end. The writing is superb and very Australian – luckily I live with two Australians so understood pretty much everything straight away – but it can be a bit off-putting initially. Having said that, there are superb lines that really stand out in my mind, such as Shane’s assertion that “I’m not gay. I’m not full blown gay. I’m just… in Sydney” and his description of Will’s voice “his is like a normal boy’s but also a bit gay so you know you can have sex with him”. These lines really sum up Shane’s very young outlook on life and very endearing naivety which Roly Botha plays beautifully. Apparently, this is his first professional role and going by this performance, he is someone to watch out for in the future. I particularly loved his interactions with Stephen Connery-Brown, wonderfully camp and adorable Peter. The two of them seem to have a rapport that is natural and completely innocent and which works so well. I can’t leave talking about the actors without mentioning Dan Hunter who does a marvelous job playing the dual roles of the young confident stud and party animal Will and also Shane’s on the edge of flipping over the edge of psycho, brother Ben. Dan made both characters so different and each had a realism about them that was fascinating to see. As soon as he put his cap on, Will disappeared and Ben was there dominating the stage.
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So, Strangers in Between has a great story and fantastic actors. What else does it have? Well there is Becky-Dee Trevenen’s set which by the movement of a chair or a table can become anything from Shane’s bedsit – definitely not a studio apartment – to a busy bar/restaurant in the heart of Sydney. Without giving anything away, the set also hides a pretty awesome surprise that was much appreciated by the audience. With all these elements put together, Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher must have really enjoyed putting Stranger in Between together and it shows as the play holds its audience spellbound from start to finish. I suppose that if I had one issue with the story it was that I felt Shane was a little too lucky. I’ve never been to King’s Cross but, going by the description in the play, it sounds like a rough district and I do wonder if a young innocent like Shane would have actually survived as well as he seemed to. Having said that, I am probably only thinking like this as, very quickly during the play I had really come to care about the three characters and by the end I really wanted nothing but the best for Shane, Will and Peter.
Ultimately, Strangers in Between is a really lovely, well written play. Yes the characters are all gay but with some small reworking, the story is flexible enough for Shane to be a woman or to remain a boy with Will and Peter being female. Excellent writing, superb staging and fantastic acting, what more could a chap ask for?
Review by Terry Eastham
Shane is sixteen, cute and scared. He’s just fled his home in rural Australia for downtown Sydney. Adrift among the lonely hearts and heady thrills of King’s Cross, Shane attempts to navigate the troubled waters of his past toward a brighter future.
Tommy Murphy’s critically acclaimed drama of friendship, sex and escapism with humour and sensitivity, Strangers in Between, offers an unflinching look at the highs and lows of being gay in modern Australia.
Artistic Director of The King’s Head Theatre, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, said: “Strangers In Between may have a gay central character but it’s story is universal, it is a coming of age story, about friendship across the generations, and how our past can come back to haunt us. There is a tendency to focus on UK and US writer’s in the British theatre scene – after Cosi earlier this year we are again showcasing an Australian writer and hopefully introducing him to new audiences.”
Tommy Murphy is an Australian playwright best know for his stage and screen adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man, which won numerous awards including Best Play at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, which he also won for Strangers in Between, he is the youngest recipient of the award and the only playwright to win in successive years.
Adam Spreadbury-Maher is the Artistic Director of The King’s Head Theatre. He has mostly recently directed Trainspotting for the King’s Head, which transferred to the Edinburgh Fringe last year and is currently on a UK tour. He was also co-Artistic Director of OperaUpClose. Adam has won and been nominated for multiple awards including an Olivier Award for the OperaUpClose production of La bohème, and Best Artistic Director from The Fringe Report.
21st June to 16th July 2016