Strangers In Between (Trafalgar Studios 2, London, until February 3rd 2018)
Growing pains and relationships are explored in the warm-hearted Strangers in Between, a coming of age drama set in Australia that tugs the heartstrings as well as constantly jolting the funny bone.
The production’s reputation precedes it, journeying as it does from its first outing a couple of years ago at one of the most enterprising pub theatres in London to one of the friendliest and most daring venues for a criminally short run.
Tommy Murphy’s exquisitely written play – it has a bewitching charm, poetry, subtle and sometimes shocking twists, honesty, insight, great depth and terrific one-liners – received its UK premiere at the King’s Head in the summer of 2016 with a brief revival there a year ago. Now, the enthralling production, with a cast to kill for, deservedly moves into the West End, and it remains unmissable.
Trafalgar Studios hosted Murphy’s play Holding the Man back in 2010 and it is pleasing that the venue has shown itself to be so enthusiastic in bringing another uncompromising yet inspiring play by the same writer to a wider audience.
Were this three-hander only a dramatic account of what it’s like to be a gay man in modern Australia, it would be rewarding enough, with utterly believable characters and sharp dialogue allowing the audience to sympathise with and relate to the lonely people and situations in which they find themselves. If the only experiences observers have of LGBTQ+ life in Oz are Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and daytime TV soaps, then Strangers in Between unpeels another layer to reveal something more streetwise and gritty, with little in the way of glitz and glamour but plenty in the way of human emotion.
In fact, it offers something much more: a down to earth and unpredictable exploration of the lives of three gay men of different ages and experience, each facing personal demons and attempting to escape aspects of their past, and each wanting to discover afresh security in relationships. The fact that the three central characters learn to support and care about each other is genuinely touching and affirming.
Roly Botha made his professional debut in the role of Shane in 2016 and his assured performance is spellbinding. In his inexperienced teenager who has run away from his small town home to the city life of Sydney he captures every nuance of the awkward and often embarrassing juvenile, vulnerable and naive but always lovable. He is the one Brit in the acting trio but holds the Aussie accent perfectly.
Stephen Connery-Brown transforms what could be the older gay stereotype into a character with sensitivity and soul. Just when we are led into thinking he is little more than a seedy predator he makes the role of the worldly-wise Peter something much more sympathetic and caring.
Dan Hunter plays the hunkily attractive Will who hooks up with Shane and, for dramatic reasons that would be spoiled by explanation, the youngster’s brutally homophobic brother. This is another strong performance of subtlety and emotion and Hunter explores well the differences between the unsupportive family of the past and the hopeful surrogate familial binds of the future.
Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher allows the narrative to take the drama forward, skilfully and simply allowing the audience to focus on the characters and their stories. Becy-Dee Trevenen’s clever multi-purpose tiled set is suggestive of something more salacious and predictable, yet is entirely suitable and practical.
The undisputed strength of this production is the remarkably close rapport between the actors. They work together effortlessly to make their characters more believable and their apparent friendship enables empathy and authenticity as the friendships develop.
Strangers in Between only runs for just over three weeks and is surely one of the first must-see productions of 2018.
Image: Scott Rylander
(A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/)