REVIEW: Strangers In Between, King’s Head Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Tommy Murphy's Strangers In Between at Kings Head Theatre
Strangers In Between. Photo: Andreas Grieger

Strangers In Between
King’s Head Theatre
Wednesday, 11th January 2017
4 Stars
Book Tickets

Making a more than welcome return to The King’s Head Theatre is their stunning European premiere of Australian playwright Tommy Murphy’s 2005 breakthrough three-hander about gay life in 1980s Sydney that has huge universal appeal. Recently, Murphy made his mark in the West End with his stage adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s ‘Holding The Man’, since filmed and lavished with awards. This commercial success seems to have convinced people to take a busk on his original stage writing. This work has long been known to director Adam Spreadbury-Maher (the theatre’s Artistic Director): the two went to school together. So, nobody could be better placed to get the avowedly heavily autobiographical drama right. The play was a big hit last year, when it ran for four packed weeks; luckily, the same team is reunited here.

The year in between has allowed the many complexities of the piece of mature in the minds of the trio. Roly Botha, a now very grown-up 19 years of age, so totally inhabits the role of the 16-year old Shane (who passes for older, runs away from home, gets a job and a series of experiences with older men), that one might think it had been written for him. Murphy’s writing is spare, and full of the non-sequiturs of adolescent prattle: Botha, who learnt his trade at Beadale’s and then in a stint or two with the NYT, has perfected the ability to turn on a sixpence between ideas and moods, while maintaining a clear, solid characterisation. Few actors land (in every sense) a lead role in the Off-West End with just a few A Levels to their name. He is a talent to watch – closely – for the future.

Shane’s main interest lies in Dan Hunter’s (another Australian in the team) glamorous, savvy, worldly Will. The verbal sparring and flirting between the two fairly makes the air crackle with Australian slang: but, don’t worry, you won’t need to bring along your trusty handbook, still in print I believe, ‘Learn To Speak Strine’ – dialect coach Elspeth Morrison is on hand to ensure that Murphy’s script makes every utterance eloquent and lucid, regardless of how densely stuffed with exotic terminology it may be. Will then morphs into Ben, the brother Shane left behind, and the play lurches pleasantly into Sam Shepherd territory.

Strangers In Between by Tommy Murphy at Kings Head Theatre
Strangers In Between. Photo: Andreas Grieger

Finally, there is older and wiser and ever so slightly sadder Peter, brought humanely to life by Stephen Connery-Brown, master of the camp and witty remark and withering look. The interactions between these three are full of brisk spontaneity; the exchanges are electric and fascinating; we get humour, drama, sex, fighting (directed by Lawrence Carmichael), and – yes – even full frontal nudity (with a certain twist). Months fly past. Dozens of other characters affect the lives of those we see, but somehow we only need them to focus on. The three of them paint an entire world.

The design, by another Australian, Becky-Dee Trevenen, is simple and effectively fuses together the various locations demanded by the script. It’s lit with wonderfully operatic panache by Richard Williamson, and the smartly apt sound is by Jon McLeod.

If there is any weakness in the writing, then it is – perhaps – in the getting into and then out of the whole script. Possibly, one reason for the play’s lack of exposure may be that literary departments tend to read those parts of plays first. On the evidence of just the very first and last pages, the play might well be dismissed. Wrongly. The glory of this work is in the vivid life that exists in its extraordinary criss-crossing of four versions of very ordinary people. Tune into that and you will have something to remember forever. Stay with them for just a short time, and then you’ll be laughing a lot, or hanging on every astonishing word.

Until 4 February 2017


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