Tommy Murphy’s Strangers In Between is one of the most beautifully written, achingly honest, and devastating insights into the life of a person growing up in a world that refuses to understand who that person truly is. Full of hope, raucous ribaldry, and sweet, tender moments of connection between disparate souls who eventually form a family, it is the perfect play to see in the aftermath of the divisive UK referendum and the homophobic attack in Orlando. It is wrapped in love, acceptance and understanding. Absolutely unmissable.
Frankly, it could be set in Soho, but the Australian accents (all impeccable) make the Down Under location crystal clear. It is Sydney; King’s Cross to be precise. Perhaps one of the most iconic of Australian locations; seedy, dominated by a huge Coke sign and with a reputation as a haunt for gangsters, prostitutes, drug addicts and flamboyant nightlife, dominated by homosexuals.
In one way, a surprising choice for a sixteen year old lad fleeing his insular country home, his emerging sexuality both a source of terror and excitement; in another way, it is the holy grail of anonymity and acceptance, where a frightened child can turn into a man and come to terms with what has been and what will be.
Tommy Murphy’s Strangers In Between is a coming of age play which is, in turns, sweet, funny, sexy, scary, bewildering, startling, horrifying, comforting and hopeful. It premiered in Sydney in 2005 to great acclaim. I saw that production and was captivated by it. Now the play is making its European premiere at The King’s Head Theatre, in a production directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher.
This Strangers In Between is every bit as good as that original production, possibly, probably even, better than it. Brilliantly conceived and played, it hits all the play’s sweet and sour spots exactly; vigorous, sometimes explosive, energy cascades everywhere, enthralling and affecting the audience. This is an example of off-West End Theatre at its most compelling.
The story centres on Shane, who has fled country Goulburn and his family there, Mum, Dad and brother Ben, to find himself and make a new life in Sydney. He lies about his age and gets a job in a bottle shop, although his retail skills leave a lot to be desired.
On his second day on the job, the very attractive Will saunters in looking for a four-pack of Vodka Black Ice. Young Shane all but dribbles over Will, but is shy, uncertain and a little scared of his blooming sexuality. Flirting occurs and telephone numbers are exchanged.
Another customer, Peter, comes in, looking for wine. Shane is affable to him too; that’s his open nature. Will writes Peter off with the words “Yuck, old sleaze”. Shane doesn’t see Peter that way, and instinctively rejects Will’s stereotyping assumptions.
Over the scenes that follow, Shane runs into Peter and over-shares with him information about the sexual encounter he had with Will. Bemused, Peter is an attentive listener and offers guidance and counsel. Shane pursues Will, but Will’s interest is not high. They do manage a very funny fumble together under the sheets though.
When Will reveals to Shane that he has given him genital warts, Shane’s fragile composure shatters. He can’t see a Doctor without contacting his family. He doesn’t want to do that because his brother Ben beat him senseless because he was gay. Shane seeks solace from Peter but, in his confusion, misjudges a sexual advance and then turns on Peter, viciously abusing him with cruel, unjustified words.
When Shane is at his lowest, with neither Will nor Peter to help him because of the way Shane has treated them, his brother, Ben, suddenly finds him in a laundromat. Alone.
To say more about the plot would be to spoil the many pleasures of Act Two, which contains the rawest moments, the most difficult truths and the warmest, reflective scenes.
Murphy’s skills are great, but his forte is incredibly believable dialogue and meticulous character development through skilled and surprising plotting. Within moments of meeting each of Shane, Peter, Will and Ben, they seem familiar, real and interesting. We all know people like them. What happens to them all is fascinating.
Sensibly, Spreadbury-Maher does nothing tricksy with the production. There is a very effective scene change technique, involving Richard Williamson’s smart half-light effects, Lawrence Carmichael’s precise stage movement and Jon McLeod’s fizzing, sharply intensifying sound stings, which smoothly changes mood as well as setting. This really pays dividends with Ben’s surprise appearance at the end of Act One.
Becky-Dee Trevenen provides one of those simple set designs which is a triumph of integrated imagination. The simple tiled background permits a number of separate spaces to be easily evoked – the bottle shop, Shane’s room, the corridor outside Will’s flat, Peter’s local (“the Office”), Peter’s home and a laundromat.
But it also has a symbolic presence, permanent and affecting, although it’s importance is not clear until an extraordinary moment in Act Two. Trevenen has placed a public pool changing room permanently on display throughout the production. When this becomes clear, Trevenen’s ingenuity is breath-taking. That place turns out to define Shane; to have it constantly present, as it must be in his mind, as he abandons childish things, is clever indeed.
This production is easily the finest directorial effort so far from Spreadbury-Maher. Confident and assured, he guides the actors into performances which seem at once effortless and profound. Although it could, the sensibility never strays into pantomime or melodrama; everything is grounded; intense and casual wherever necessary, but splendidly alive.
What is most impressive here is that, in the end, one does not feel like one has sat through a “gay play”. No. This is a play about growing up, facing fears, making friends as fast as mistakes, but learning, forgiving and accepting too; it’s about love, respect and making your own family. Its relevance to today’s fractured, hate-spewing world is undeniable.
One of the impressive conceits of Murphy’s play is that the characters of Will and Ben are played by the same actor, here Dan Hunter. As Will, Hunter is all knowing sultry perfection, carnal and aloof; in his torn blue jeans or multi-zippered tight red jeans, Hunter is a sexual zephyr, one that can blow hot or cold with indifference. The scene where he confronts a distressed Shane outside his, Will’s, apartment is brilliantly done, and the final scene is graceful and sweet. Hunter’s Will is superb.
But when he menacingly dons a baseball cap, Hunter switches into Ben mode, utterly, completely convincingly. Ben is a rock-ape who goes out with girls called Bri and Terrine (he has cheated on Bri with Terrine, but she’s the slut) and has the whiff of violence and rage about his person like body odour. But he wants his brother home, and as the story unfolds and dark secrets are revealed, Ben turns out to be more complex, more comprehensible than might have been first thought. Again, Hunter is devastatingly good.
Making his professional stage debut, Roly Botha is wonderful as the flighty, frightened, floundering Shane. He has the awkwardness of youth perfectly articulated but equally it is clear that he just wants to love and be loved, if he can work out how and who with. He is both confident and confused as the occassion demands, and the fear, and then strength, he displays when big brother Ben arrives is startling.
Botha has excellent comic skills as well and he captures the adolescent penchant for spurting out silly questions or missing the point or pretending to know that which he doesn’t with consummate ease. In a poised and poignant performance, Botha proves himself to be one to watch.
Botha and Hunter portray the sibling relationship with an exactitude that is bitter and sweet, true and complicated. Shane loves and fears Ben just as Ben loves and fears Shane – but their reasons for their feelings are different. There is an especially powerful sequence where Shane makes sandwiches and super-strength cordial for his brother that starts out mundane and comical and ends up shattering and superb. Gifted actors making the most of great writing.
Completing the trio of actors is Stephen Connery-Brown whose Peter is much older and more world-weary than Shane or Will. Like a bearded John Gielgud, Connery-Brown’s Peter is the definition of cheeky, urbane diffidence: he lives alone, cooks well, has a fractious relationship with his own family and substitutes white wine for company. He has loved and lived, but his star is faded. Shane offers him someone to care about and he takes the responsibility seriously and is grievously wounded when Shane mistreats him.
It’s a very fine, quite dry and slightly irritating performance from Connery-Brown, precisely right for this character who is self-sufficient but lonely.
The first and final scenes offer the only moments when all three characters are together; in the beginning they are strangers, at the end they are a kind of family, with Will agreeing that Peter’s “all right”. A full circle.
Its the In Between which proves most absorbing, most affecting. Most unmissable.
Strangers In Between is finer than any other drama playing on the West End currently. If there is justice in the theatrical world, it will transfer and run for a long time. Practically flawless in every way.
Rush to get a ticket.