While the chilly damp January nights may suggest otherwise, this revival of Strangers In Between is a fine achievement, of which all involved should feel proud, and one that no one with a serious commitment to London theatre should miss.
With a re-development in the offing, one hopes that not too many changes are planned for Trafalgar Studio 2. Barring the peculiarly awkward tip-up seats, this has turned out to be an invaluable location for West End transfers of small-scale plays that have done well elsewhere. The intimate scale of the venue preserves the framework of intensity of the original, and if anything increases it through the three sides of seating; and the very constrained space has acted as a discipline and stimulus to one designer after another. Strangers in Between is no exception, and in both regards.
This play was first shown at the Griffin Theatre, Sydney in 2005, and has had considerable success internationally since then. This production was originally given at the King’s Head, where it has had two runs, and now comes to the West End – deservedly so. Tommy Murphy wrote the play at the same time as his better known, and now filmed drama, Holding the Man. But this is in reality a much better play – free from the dominating personality of that work’s central character and the original book’s polemical intent.
Strangers in Between is a much better reflection of Murphy’s talent and authorial personality, with the emphasis on careful, convincing, layering of character, and a charming juxtaposition of verbal and situational humour with dark themes tugging at our attention in the background.
The brilliantly flexible set – all tiles and hooks – by Becky-Dee Trevenen initially suggests a swimming pool changing room, only to confound expectations and become everything but that in a serious of finely achieved scene changes with a minimum of props. An off-licence, bed-sit, café, apartment, and bathroom are all referenced at different points – before the initial point of recognition returns to becomes chillingly apparent. A wonderful example of the set acting as narrative summary, and all assisted expertly by Jonathan McLeod’s sound design, which covers the change-overs with a sonic scheme that encapsulates and then shifts the mood with a parallel economy of design.
This is a three-hander, which relies for its success on the trust and energy between the actors, which is here both abundant and life-affirming. On the surface it is the story of Shane, a vulnerable gay teen from the boondocks, who runs away from an intolerable home-life and then finds that in the big city of Sydney life runs away from him at alarming speed.
The scenes focus on his relationships with Peter, an older gay man, who appears to be a predator but turns out to be a warm-hearted protector, and Will, a younger man, whose interest also appears to be transactional and ephemeral, but who in the end also turns out to be in for the long-haul. These roles are taken with rare technical and emotional finesse in each case by Roly Botha, Stephen Connery-Brown and Dan Hunter. A final more sinister character, in the form of Ben, Shane‘s elder brother, is also played by Hunter, for reasons that only gradually seep into our consciousness in the course of the second half.
But if one stands back from the detail of the story this piece fundamentally represents a touching and wholly credible story of growing pains from teenage years to adulthood that anyone should be able to relate to. This is an exceptionally difficult genre to break into with something new to say, and yet Murphy triumphantly succeeds in his endeavour with charm, wry humour and a rare insight into the best and worst of what we are capable. Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher translates this vision into dramatic form with grace and a fine attention to both pace and detail.
Each actor brings lovely moments of filigree skill to the development of their characters. Botha is all shivery nerves and edgy twitches at the start, externalising the conflicts within his own psyche, especially over public acknowledgement of his sexuality. He can lash out with alarming speed at those who are trying to assist him, but also turn the mood on a dollar into winning teenage joshing and goofiness, and a shy desire for affection and reassurance. Every passing mood is registered with exceptional sensitivity and skill so that we are drawn into Shane‘s journey at every step of the way. There is no doubt this is a breakthrough role of a rare talent.
Hunter has in some ways the most tricky challenge in morphing from the charming if somewhat narcissistic Will into the dark and brutal figure of Ben, the brother in grim pursuit of his younger sibling. But with a few adjustments in costume the transformation is effected with telling results. Ben spreads like a stain across the second act and Hunter ensures that this process generates empathy and understanding, as well as distaste. And as Will two vignettes of Hunter’s acting linger long in the memory – a hilarious sex scene with Botha that captures all the ill-directed energy and mutual embarrassment of a date gone awry, and a doorstep scene of near-rejection when Will is high on drugs, which is just a delightfully accurate piece of technical stagecraft.
Peter is the slow-burn role here – the wry, slightly defensive older gay man, who is clearly lonely and unhappy but too canny to reveal it easily. His care and concern for is generously conveyed but not in a saccharine fashion: there are plenty of tart one-liners and eye-rolling camp asides on the one hand, and moments of sad introversion and anguished guilt on the other. His character is a demonstration of the author’s care for his characters: not content with giving us Shane’s family story he also shades in a complementary counterpoint in the form of Peter’s loss of his own mother. These themes merge delicately in the concluding scene.
This is one of the few plays I have reviewed recently which really does justify its interval. The conclusion of act one offers a real theatrical surprise which earns us our bar-break, and when the second act resumes it is with a darkening set of shadows that neatly dispels the more expository tone of the first half. Structurally, therefore, as well as emotionally this writing is very satisfying because you feel at the end of it that the journey has been plausible, memorable and fully explicated in terms of all the dimensions of character and interaction that the actors have so winningly embodied and realised.
So by the end of this fine play when all three are united by an unspoken bond of new-found family, this does not seem in any way sentimental or forced; rather, it has been earned by all the fine detail and shared experience that has accumulated within and around them up to this point. While the very end of the play seems a tad abrupt, that is only because we want to know and experience more of the shared life they seem to be creating for each other on a further shore. The point at which your audience want more is often the best place to stop.
While the chilly damp January nights may suggest otherwise, this fine achievement, of which all involved should feel proud, is one that no one with a serious commitment to London theatre should miss.