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Strangers In Between (King’s Head Theatre, London): Review

strangers in between What's behind door number 1? Roly Botha (front) and Dan Hunter (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Andreas Grieger.

Funny and incredibly well observed, but also unexpectedly dark and intense, Strangers in Between is a runaway success.

In Strangers in Between, Shane has just arrived in the less than glamorous suburb of King’s Cross, Sydney, far from his rural home town of Goulburn. He hooks up with the hot guy who comes into the shop he works in, and ends up befriending an older man. Although clearly out of his depth, there’s something not quite as it seems with Shane. But how long can secrets and emotions can be kept suppressed, and can you ever really run away from your past?

strangers in between

For Pete’s sake. Stephen Connery-Brown as Pete in ‘Strangers in Between’. Photogra;ph: Courtesy of Andreas Grieger.

Writing

Tommy Murphy’s plays have become a recognisable part of the contemporary LGBT canon, especially with Holding the Man being made into a celebrated film. Strangers in Between already had one successful outing at the King’s Head Theatre in 2016, and now returns for a longer run to really kick-start 2017. And what couldn’t there be to love about Strangers in Between? Hot Aussies and hilarious comedy, mixed in with moments that are on par with an intense psychological thriller!

Unsurprisingly, Strangers in Between is always going to resonate mostly with gay men, seeing as it’s a play about gay men, but that doesn’t mean women and heteronormative people will find it oblique. It’s still, overall, an outstanding play about youth, self-discovery, and twisted secrets. However, Murphy manages to capture the thoughts, feelings, and tumbles of being young and gay and moving away from small minded small-town mentality to the bright lights and temptations of the big city: and all the problems that come with it. Strangers in Between’s central character is really someone who is starting to find out who he is sexually and personally. Shane’s hopelessness gives Murphy plenty of opportunity to bring out some brilliantly well observed comic moments, especially against older Peter’s world-weary wise cracks, and the sassy savvy of hunky Will.

But Strangers in Between is by no means just some campy comedy (although, there are plenty of campy comic moments), as Murphy drop-kicks some incredibly powerful and gripping ulterior themes that play intricately and astonishingly well with the overall story arc, making Strangers in Between rather tremendous. There are issues about mental health and internalised homophobia that eek through at points, until rolling into full blown and nail-biting calamity. But even then, these narrative oddities and enigmas in Strangers in Between don’t pan out as you’d expect, and Murphy’s masterful sleight of hand means what you think might be going on couldn’t be further from the truth, and that were big clues all throughout the narrative development but you just didn’t notice them.

The only possible criticism is that there are some themes that could absolutely been done with being explored more. But then again, the fact that they stay enigmatic and unexplained is actually part of Murphy’s unsettling of what you think is going on. Furthermore, going into these a bit more would probably muddy the end of the play. As it stands, Strangers in Between ends succinctly and thoughtfully at a nice organic juncture and leaving you satisfied and provoked, so why mess with that?

The end result is that Strangers in Between is a real thrill ride from beginning to finish. You’ll laugh a lot, you’ll be suspended on the edge of your seat, but also find yourself leaving incredibly poignant about how we’ve become who we are, and remembers what it was like to be young and independent for the first time, and discovering your present and your past.

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Big brother is watching you. Dan Hunter (left) and Roly Botha (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Andreas Grieger.

Direction and Production

Adam Spreadbury-Maher directs Strangers in Between, and you can’t complain, as he gets to grip to both sides of Murphy’s frantic and surprising text. The comic moments are sharp and snappy, with some time put in so that the audience can react without the show whizzing past them. Then, as Strangers in Between starts to drift into something darker, Spreadbury-Maher really draws out the tension, making these scenes almost unbearably frightening. It’s a real whiplash of a show and this comes through in Spreadbury-Maher’s pristine execution.

Aiding this is some excellent sound design from Jon McLeod and lighting design from Richard Williamson, specifically during scene changes. Not only does it ensure that scene changes aren’t dull, dragging, or breaking the mood, they also build up a strange threat, hinting towards the play’s sinister and wild crescendo. Williamson’s lighting also brings out varying degrees of a malevolent murk throughout the show, playing with shadows and darkness, meaning not everything is as bright and cheery as it seems, from start to finish.

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Juicy boy. Roly Botha as Shane in ‘Stragners in Between’. Photograph: Courtesy of Andreas Grieger.

Cast

All three actors in Strangers in Between are absolutely phenomenal. Stephen Connery-Brown is just outstanding as older Peter. Effeminate and catty, Connery-Brown’s performance is the cornerstone of a lot of the comedy in Strangers in Between, and his comic timing is absolutely fantastic that he turns the humour into hilarity at every opportunity. But Connery-Brown also subtly probes the depths and complexities beneath Peter’s campy and hospitable veneer that, even through the quick quips and one-liners, you always get the feeling that there’s something more than bitchy jokes to the character.

Roly Botha is brilliant as the fidgety, unsure, and jittery Shane. There’s a marvelous sense of hapless innocence and bumbling charm that Botha gets across through his performance, and you can’t help falling in love with him. However, Shane’s darker more conflicted side often erupts out in violent, unexpected, and fiendish torrents of which Botha really juxtaposes immaculately against his more adorable side. Roly is so good at doing this that, when it happens, it really comes completely and impetuously out of left-field, making him charming but dangerous to watch.

Dan Hunter is completely alluring as dreamboat Will. But he’s by no means a one directional bimbo. You get the sense of his patience and his interest in Shane, and is wonderfully level headed, down to earth, and surprisingly real despite being Strangers in Between’s intentionally sexy love interest. But Hunter also does an astonishing turn as the play’s only other character, becoming almost unrecognisable as Shane’s brother, Ben, going from confident sexy-and-I-know-it Lothario to unsure and unpredictable tormentor. Hunter does a masterful Jekyll and Hyde turn that is worthy of two best actor awards for this dual role.

Verdict

Hold onto your thongs and your Chardonnay, Strangers in Between is a riot of a laugh and a pulse-racing caprice that will hold you captive.

Strangers in Between plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN, until 4 February 2017. Tickets are £10 – £25. To book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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