It’s a real boon for Australian theatre and playwright, Tommy Murphy, to see his play, Strangers in Between, playing in London for a second season this month, on the West End no less, and at the same time opening at the perfectly cosy fortyfivedownstairs for its second staging in Melbourne.
You wonder why it’s never been staged in our city more times before now as the charm of the play quickly envelops you. It’s on this month as part of the Midsumma Festival thanks to the passion of producers Cameron Lukey and Andy Johnston. It displays an exquisite handling of a script by director Daniel Lammin.
It was first produced in 2005 at Griffin Theatre at SBW Stables Theatre in Sydney and thirteen years on, we have this delectable serving of whip-smart writing that endears, moves and charts the complexities of family life specifically for those identifying as same-sex attracted.
A bare stage with just a bath half-filled water at its centre, greets the audience. The acting space is framed with a touch disco camp with those classic silver streamers dangling and shimmering from ceiling to floor. This set (Abbie Lea Hough) is all the three actors are given to work on and its empty space serves the play so well as the actors create each scene so cleverly through mime and movement and there is so much more reliance on acting skills to portray their characters’ truth.
Shane (Wil King) enters and steps downstage looking out towards us with a mixture of contrasting expressions: fear, excitement, vulnerability and tenacity. His story is the focus of the play. Running from family violence and his drowning in the small town mentality within his hometown in the early 2000s, Shane seeks to escape, like many men and women before him, within the Emerald City.
King brings to the fore his characters tenacity and innocence with deft use of facial expressions and skilled vocal capacity. King executes the play’s quick-fire dialogue so well. The sheer thrill, and at the same time angst of Shane finding himself in this new world, is portrayed so successfully by King. The story is not a new one – young gay teenager leaves small town home, penniless, seeks like minds in the big smoke and yearns to disappear within the comfort of anonymity whilst finding himself. But of course Murphy is able to refashion this story and has moulded a real Australian take on the theme.
The play has not been updated at all from 2005. As Murphy states in the program notes, a smartphone would have been an able assistant in Shane’s craving for the new and his re-invention of himself and many of his issues would have been diminished. But fitting in is not the main theme of the play. What shines through is Murphy’s exploration of our human capacity and need to care for others. How and why we cannot stop caring in the face of pain and difficulty. How an act of kindness propels us along our paths. How people, who crave acceptance and companionship, can bring happiness to each other’s lives in spite of any difference in age, class and life experience.
Simon Burke’s, Peter, a bristling, snide and hard-shelled older gay man learns much from Shane, many decades his junior, and he is a changed man at the play’s end. Burke’s expert handling of the ribald dialogue is a delight to witness. Peter’s cream, pearl-knit cardigan was such a perfect costume choice by Abbie Lea Hough.
Guy Simon, who received such high praise in 2017 for his character in the stage adaptation of the novel Jasper Jones, plays two roles – Shane’s lover and Shane’s brother. Having the actor play these two roles ends up being a clever theatrical trope by Murphy, which I won’t spoil here by saying why. Simon’s presence on stage was a perfect ingredient for the production.
The focus is on family here, the difference between our biological family and the family we adopt as our friends or our community, this being especially important for young LGBTIQ men and women who are rejected by their biological family.
It has been an intense time for the gay community during the past months and Strangers in Between simply highlights the importance of caring and holding communities together. It is sure to be the highlight of Midsumma 2018.
This production was reviewed for the theatre website, theatrepeople.com.au
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Strangers in Between
by Tommy Murphy
from January 24th until February 11th