Review by Sam Waite
Making its UK debut seven years ago at the King’s Head Theatre, Tommy Murphy’s Strangers in Between was already an award-winning work in Murphy’s native Australia. Dealing with the highs and lows of being gay in modern Australia, and with the complications between both biological and chosen families, Strangers was met with acclaim in both Australia and the UK, and has now opened at another intimate fringe venue, London’s Golden Goose Theatre.
Shane has fled his native Goulburn for Kings Cross, Sydney. Never able to live his life authentically in his home city, he has more baggage around being gay and the potential risks than he does actual possessions to unpack. At the convenience store job he is struggling to get the hang of he meets slightly older Will and much older Peter, with both of whom he will try to build his new family unit. The violent altercation with his older brother that led to his flight across the country hangs over these attempts to rebuild
Murphy's characters are clearly defined from the outset, their personalities strong and their speech distinctive, but without sacrificing layers and emotional revelations in each of their arcs. Dialogue is natural and allows for everyone to be funny without having to stop what they're saying to slip in a joke – and the jokes they do throw out are always genuinely funny, and always appropriate to the character telling them. Murphy unravels his plot and the hidden dramas in Shane’s life bit by bit, keeping the natural, easy-to-believe relationships moving while we learn increasingly shocking things about the trio, particularly Shane.
Alex Ansdell, making his professional debut, plays Shane with a raw, unbridled energy – even when being goofy and unassuming in a comedy-forward opening scene, he makes it clear that the character could come apart at any moment and is in no way prepared for adult life. Despite the short bio, Ansdell is an absolute pro and more than holds his own, lending the required humanity to Shane’ larger than life, poorly controlled emotional outbursts, as well as giving his utter lack of social skills and inability to read a room the charm that makes it tolerable – perhaps even likeable.
As the eldest character, Stephen Connery-Brown is on his fourth run as Peter, and his familiarity with the role serves him well. His Peter strikes the delicate balance between the parental figure seeing in Shane a chance to impart wisdom, and the “old sleaze” who can't help but find him just a bit alluring. Wisely, Peter’s lines about his ailing mother are almost throwaways, not laced with overt concern or an intent to instil foreboding, which might weaken the increasing realisation of her ill health.
Most famous as the first openly gay athlete to win Olympic gold, retired diver Matthew Mitcham makes his Uk acting debut with Strangers. His is a dual role, as both loud and proud Will, and Shane’s homophobic older brother Ben, and while one is more consistent both are well-acted. Perhaps because Ben doesn't appear until the second half, the character feels less fleshed out and less constant in his mannerisms and speech patterns. Will, on the other hand, is immediately familiar and feels like a real person you’ve likely met one place or another.
The three have a strong chemistry, though Mitcham and Connery-Brown have minimal time together on stage. Both have believable bonds with Ansdell, which help to solidify why they remain in his life despite growing tensions. Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher keeps Ansdell’s Shane in near-constant motion, which nicely sells his excessive, hard-to-control energy. With shock factor definitely present, and on-stage intimacy occurring at least a couple of times, Spreadbury-Maher leaves nudity for a central, important moment of genuine intimacy, rather than the list seen elsewhere.
Set design from David Shields does a lot with a little, bringing a handful of spaces to the intimate, 85-seat venue with only a handful of set-pieces. A countertop, chairs in a bar, a single bed and even a bathtub are played by the same fixture – the top is revealed as removable when used as a bath. Meanwhile a smaller fixture rotates to transform the space from The Bottle-O (where Shane works) to the “bathroom” of his dingy studio. To aid the transitions to and from work, Richard Lambert’s lights flicker and dim, bringing a harsher edge to the seedy neighbourhood young Shane has fled to.
As affecting now as in its 2005 Australian debut, Strangers in Between is a touching and beautifully crafted story of the platonic love that can grow between a chosen family, and the struggles of late adolescence that being queer can further exacerbate. Lending itself well to the theatre’s intimacy, and with a trio of sharp performances – leaning into stereotypes without abandoning nuance – the play is slowly ageing into a period piece, but has yet to lose any of its insight or significance.
Strangers in Between plays at the Golden Goose Theatre until October 7th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.goldengoosetheatre.co.uk/whatson/strangers-in-between
Photos by Peter Davies