For a play about secrets, self-discovery and reinvention, Strangers In Between has an openness and honesty that shines through from its very first moments. Rural boy Shane (Roly Botha) moves to the glittering city, works in a liquor store and meets eye candy Will (Dan Hunter). Who could resist Will’s disarming smile and piercing gaze, full of flirtatious promise? Certainly not Shane, reduced to a hot mess as soon as he utters his first line.
For a play about domestic abuse, homophobia and the internal struggle of coming out when you’ve been told all your life that to be who you are is an abomination, Strangers In Between is startling funny. Laugh out loud funny; unexpected belly laughs funny; outrageous, #NoFilter outbursts funny. Tommy Murphy writes a winning trio of characters that the three actors embody with comfortable ease – a complementary yet clashing set of personalities, who each highlight the beautiful dysfunctionality of a self-made family found in the most unlikely of places. For bright eyed, bushy tailed teenager Shane (Botha), the city eventually becomes a safe space where he can make his own home, with those who love him for who he really is. It’s a story that many will easily relate to.
Adam Spreadbury-Maher weaves his distinctive spell over Strangers In Between once more, bringing out the connections between characters while still maintaining the overall tension inherent in Murphy’s exceptional script. Director and writer alike manage to balance heart-warming and chilling with nuance and finesse – the short, sharp exchanges have sudden impact, piercing through the soft, nonsensical ramblings that form the bedrock of this production. Terrines are basically meat cakes and mock martial arts fighting is foreplay – that is until STIs, a fleeting sense of male grooming and the threat of fraternal ferocity rear their ugly heads.
Strangers In Between is self-assured and established in its construction – it helps that the three actors have embodied their parts since the UK premiere of this show in 2016 at the King’s Head Theatre. Each is inherently grounded in their roles, a self-confidence and knowledge of the character that often develops over time. It also comes from Spreadbury-Maher’s assured direction; in every production, Adam is committed to ensuring that each of his actors gets under the skin of their part, considers the unseen backstory and is able to dig deeper into their role than the show may seemingly require. It produces a complex, detailed set of performances in each of his projects without fail.
Credit where credit’s due however – these three actors are well suited to their roles. The stand-out performance is that of Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown), an older gentleman who spots a naïve newbie to the gay scene from a mile away. Connery-Brown is gifted with a part that oozes comedy as easily as it exudes paternal empathy, and he balances the two expertly.
Botha likewise grabs Shane with both hands and jumps in headfirst. His gullible energy and enthusiasm are subtlety countered by insecurity and a childhood of conditioning. Botha intentionally lacks self-awareness – a series of small ticks and mannerisms beautifully reveal Shane’s vulnerability, concealed as it is over a thin layer of projected confidence. Hunter has the trickiest job, playing both love interest Will and hot-headed brother Ben, a clever decision to put the same actor as the ultimate conflict in Shane’s conscience. Hunter’s performance makes the most of Ben’s layering in his limited stage time.
Strangers In Between gets under your skin little by little – Murphy’s characters gradually bring the audience on side as they themselves slowly switch from sitcom to drama, from affable to complex. As Shane unravels, his journey resonates within our minds, the destination cemented by a tender final scene of mature camaraderie and renewed hope. The echoes of this play stay with me for hours afterwards – the mark of an impactful production.
To read more about Strangers In Between, which plays at Trafalgar Studios until 3 February 2018, follow the company on Twitter (@KHTWestEnd) or visit the theatre’s website – www.atgtickets.com/trafalgar-studios
Click here for an interview with actor Roly Botha.
Strangers In Between is one our Theatre must-sees of 2018! Want to read about more unmissable theatre? Check out our editors thoughts here.