There’s been a surge of interest in Australian theatre in recent years and this production of Tommy Murphy’s ‘Strangers in Between’ joins a growing list of work to hit town from ‘across the pond’. Following its Australian premiere at Sydney’s SBW Stables Theatre in 2005, the work gained critical acclaim which led Murphy to win an award for Best Play at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards.
The story centres on a frightened sixteen-year-old Shane (Roly Botha) who has fled small-town Australia for downtown Sydney’s King’s Cross; a place far removed from his backwater upbringing. Struggling to understand his sexual identity and having been beaten by his redneck brother ‘for being gay’, Shane finds a low pay job and rents a small studio that he can barely afford. He soon meets the handsome and charming Will (Dan Hunter) – a customer at work – and quickly becomes infatuated with him. Shane also meets Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown), a mature gay man who is attracted to him and listens to his stories: Will describes Peter as ‘an old sleaze.’
The story is nothing new: a teenager struggles to be himself in the small town he was raised, so moves to the city. In the city, he realises life can be just as difficult, but in different ways. Interestingly though, which some audiences might miss, there are two coming of age stories played out, those of both Shane and Peter, both at different stages of the age spectrum. The youthful excitement for the unknown adventure, set against the long fullness of older age.
Director and King’s Head Artistic Director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, keeps things appropriately simple in the staging of this production. The action takes place on a small unit set that is multifunctional and sets the different locations well. The sexual encounter between Shane and Will is played under a sheet – this simplistic approach, coupled with good direction, captures the clumsiness and reality of sex with an ease of humour that can be difficult to achieve. There are effective moments of stillness throughout, when characters sit and talk and the audience ‘overhears’ private conversations. The four characters are each distinguishable and their complex relationships with each other are well constructed; credit to the director and actors.
The acting in this production is formidable. It is difficult to believe that this is Botha’s first professional production. In a performance that is brave and touching, he commands the stage in his performance of a naive Shane and has great comic timing. Hunter does an excellent job at multi-rolling between the characters of Will and Shane’s brother, Ben. He has a naturalness to his performance that is alluring and he doubles to deliver two convincing performances with ease. Connery-Brown provides bounds of humour in his camp and insightful portrayal of Peter. It is the well penned characters and excellent acting that drive this work, along with some great one-liners. The writing is generally good, however it sometimes misses the mark, with odd twists in plot and some of the dialogue feels a little clunky.
The play touches on many issues faced by the gay community, including homophobia and growing old. With recent events in Orlando, where 49 members of the LGBT community where shot in a gay nightclub, the play is as relevant now as it was 10 years ago. However, what might be of particular interest to some audiences are the questions the work raises about inverted homophobia: when LGBT people self-hate, where this stems from and the impact of it on the community as a whole. This is a well-directed, well-acted and thought-provoking piece of drama that is worth seeing.
Playing until 16th July at the King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, London, N1 1QN. Tickets 0207 226 8561 www.kingsheadtheatre.com
Review by Darren Luke Mawdsley