Monday, 15 January 2018

Theatre review: Strangers in Between

Trafalgar Studio 2 has, unsurprisingly given its size, carved out a niche as a venue for transferring shows that did well on the fringe to somewhere a bit more central. The Finborough and Old Red Lion have been regular visitors and now the King’s Head takes a turn with Australian playwright Tommy Murphy’s Strangers in Between. Shane (Roly Botha) is 19 but both looks and acts young for his age, having grown up gay in a remote town best known for its prison, which houses a couple of notorious recent criminals. He’s fled his abusive older brother and turned up in Sydney’s King’s Cross district, known as a dodgy area but soon feeling safer for him than his home town. Still getting used to being open about his sexuality, he soon finds a couple of mentors in camp father figure Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown) and potential romantic interest Will (Dan Hunter.)

Shane tends to be nervous to the point of actually trembling a lot of the time, and the fact that he needs help from virtual strangers for most things – he segues from asking how to do laundry to how to do anal sex – give away the fact that he’s run away from home in a hurry.

But Strangers in Between for the most part has a light touch, beginning with the opening scene of Shane’s disastrous first shift in the off-licence where he’s found a part-time job. Although Will can be stand-offish at times – he’s not prepared for a casual hookup to suddenly become so dependent on him – both he and Peter start to develop a genuine affection for the boy. Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production is less successful in the more dramatic developments, Botha turning his character’s twitches up to Oscar ClipTM level. Nervous twitching actually becomes a theme once Hunter doubles as Shane’s abusive brother Ben, signalling his disturbed nature with it.

This imbalance probably originates with the script, as Murphy too seems more comfortable coming up with witty one-liners for his characters than with their darker sides. Some of the plotting is clumsy, and the characters inconsistent – Peter going full Dirty Old Man to leer at Shane’s description of sex with Will before making a pass at him himself feels at odds with the wholesome role he takes elsewhere in the boy’s life. The doubling of Will and Ben is probably meant to have significance as Shane replaces his real family with substitute figures, but again Murphy prefers to throw this away with a gag. The obligatory FULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT! is actually a surprisingly sweet moment, although it really does have a feel of the obligatory to it – it’s a gay play, so the unwritten rule is the twinky lead has to show us what he’s packing.

But for all its faults this is a pretty successful evening. When he isn’t trying too hard Botha is an extremely natural and likeable lead, and he sparks well with the other two as they get drawn into playing the roles the runaway needs from them. The play touches too lightly on too many diverse themes of abuse to really say much about any of them, but the more positive aspect of the play about found family is handled well, making for a diverting couple of hours and a good hit-rate of comic moments.

Strangers in Between by Tommy Murphy is booking until the 3rd of February at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander.

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