This production of Strangers in Between is, to the best of my recollection, the closest to a proscenium arch setup I’ve come across at the King’s Head Theatre. Even before anything had happened or any character had said anything I was impressed: with the raised stage, the sightlines from anywhere, including the very back row, were much better throughout than they would have been otherwise, a common issue with productions staged in pub theatres.
Shows about what it is to be a gay man in Australia have appeared in London before: there was the phenomenal Trafalgar Studios run in 2010 of Holding The Man, by the same author as Strangers in Between, Tommy Murphy; the year before that, Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical opened at the Palace Theatre, on Shaftesbury Avenue, a very different show but still with underlying dark tones permeating the narrative in places.
But to say this is another play in which some men take their clothes off and enjoy some bedroom activity before paying the price for it in the form of some sexually transmitted disease or other is to miss the totality of the play, and all the other aspects about coming of age and family ties (amongst other things, but I shan’t give everything away) that occasionally threaten to overshadow the main storyline about Shane (Roly Botha) and the difficulties he faces being, to quote BBC Television’s Little Britain, ‘the only gay in the village’, and its far-reaching consequences. That this still is the salient point in plays of this nature is not a demonstration of a lack of imagination, but rather a never-too- often repeated reminder that there remains, for many ‘coming out’, a whole host of issues that arise.
Such a hilarious first half comes largely as the result of some excellent comic timing and Botha’s portrayal of Shane as someone not at all streetwise who has just arrived in the big city – his many questions fired at Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown), for instance, strongly suggest Shane has never lived on his own before. It reminded me of a pamphlet I picked up at the ‘Freshers’ Fair’ during my very first week at university, explaining the sort of practical details Shane needed and wanted to know about. It was most memorable for pointing out that apartheid is good, but only when it comes to washing clothes, when a separation of whites from coloureds is essential.
Anyway, the show was predictable in one regard, and only in one regard: with the first half being such a hoot, the second was almost inevitably going to be substantially bleaker. Now, the show had its Australian premiere in 2005, and already the world has changed somewhat since then. I wonder, for instance, how difficult it would be to remain undetected from undesirable relatives these days. If anyone goes missing, police forces are not averse to using social media to appeal to the public, and news about a missing person can spread very quickly.
There was something astonishing and humbling to see in Peter and Will (Dan Hunter) assisting Shane when he genuinely does need support from someone. Roly Botha portrays the vulnerability and relative naivety of Shane excellently. There are, I would have thought, many people who can identify with Shane, insofar as at some point they would have wished relations with their relatives were more cordial and less adversarial. A touching scene plays out Shane’s train of thought in a very absorbing way.
Although the play is far from being a typical LGBT+ narrative, the underlying message remains oh-so-familiar: seize the day and leave the past in the past. I’m not sure why this play ends so abruptly, but finishing on a high note for Shane sends the audience out encouraged. I understand from a fellow audience member who attended the original King’s Head run in 2016 that the production is ’much tighter’ now than it was then. Worth a visit, as it were, down under – overall, it’s a brilliant and bittersweet production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Back by popular demand after a critically acclaimed smash hit summer 2016 season, award-winning playwright Tommy Murphy’s slice of Aussie life returns to the King’s Head to kick off 2017 in style!
Sixteen-year-old Shane has fled his rural hometown for the glitz, glamour and glory of Sydney’s King’s Cross. Adrift among the lonely hearts and hot boys, Shane attempts to navigate the troubled waters of his past toward a brighter future.
Strangers In Between is an unflinching look at the highs and lows of growing up gay in modern Australia, fit to burst with laugh-out-loud one-liners, simmering sexual tension and heartfelt confessions.
Booking to 4th February 2017