The last time I saw Strangers In Between in its original home at The King’s Head Theatre, I could only hope that I would one day get the chance to see this incredible production again. Only twelve months later, and director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, who is more genius than genie, has granted that wish, by transferring the entire production to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios.
Tommy Murphy’s Strangers In Between packs a lot in to its ninety-minute running time; teenage runaway, Shane, finds himself alone and terrified in Sydney’s Kings Cross, struggling to survive straight out of the family home, while trying to come to terms with his sexuality. Not even the giant Coke sign can allay his fears or the torment he faces, but just when he needs it the most, he finds kindness, and friendship in the form of strangers.
Despite the new West End setting Strangers In Between feels even more intimate now than it did in The King’s Head, being so close to the stage allows you to see up close the sustained intensity with which the cast perform. Every fibre of Roly Botha’s Shane, quivers in fear of the situation he finds himself in, as his wide-eyed innocence gives way to heightened angst.
Tommy Murphy’s writing is superb, weaving together a fascinatingly delicate tale which twists and turns throughout. But it is Roly Botha’s performance which is quite literally breath-taking, this may be his West End debut, but he commands the stage like he’s been doing it his entire life. As he takes on the multitude of emotions the character faces, Botha expertly guides the audience through Shane’s journey, absorbing the very empathy he has created, and turning out scene after scene of unadulterated perfection.
While many of those scenes are particularly moving, with shocking candour which left the audience audibly gasping at times, there’s also a great comedic element, indeed much of the first act is intensely funny. In one scene where Peter introduces Shane to “The Office”, the audience were in hysterics, even if they could see the deeper meaning of Shane’s plight.
Stephen Connery-Brown is magnificent as Peter, this character could so easily have been seen in a different light, but Connery-Brown does wonders to mitigate this, and makes Peter the hero figure of the story. His each appearance on stage creates a warmth, and sense of gratitude, because we’ve come to realise just how important Peter is to Shane.
The cast is completed by Dan Hunter, who has the difficult task of taking on two roles, even if one of them isn’t quite what it seems. With very few visual clues, we can immediately understand which role is which, and the consequences that will have.
We find the tension heightened at times through the use of lighting and sound effects, which overlay the scene changes, and while this story could take place anywhere in the world, there are very strong nods to its Australian setting, from the Queen Adelaide wine to the Cottees cordial.
Strangers In Between perfectly captures that crippling fear of suddenly realising you are totally alone, and in contrast, the undiluted joy of finding someone, anyone, that you can call a friend. The final moments remain, for me, one of the most beautiful scenes in theatre, because it represents the power of friendship. For anyone who has ever felt alone, or relied on the kindness of strangers, they will recognise a little of themselves in Shane, and in this beautiful, life-affirming play. A play which the West End should count itself very lucky to have.