Writer: Tommy Murphy
Director: Adam Spreadbury-Maher
The idea of a young gay man fleeing a homophobic life in his rural homeland and finding refuge in the lonely city is hardly a new one. In Tommy Murphy’s 2005 play Strangers in Between that young man is Shane, a fast-talking innocent who has fled his native town of Goulburn and moved to the Kings Cross area of Sydney – a region which, at the time of the play, is one of the city’s seedier residences.
Alex Ansdell gives Shane a guileless, charming air that immediately marks him out as both warm and vulnerable. His innocence sits winningly against the cool insouciance of the more experienced Will (Matthew Mitcham) and the seen-it-all-before weariness of the older Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown).
This tale of a young gay lad beginning to blossom both socially and sexually could become just another fluffy sex comedy. And there is much laughter throughout, Ansdell’s boundless energy and Murphy’s script providing plenty of humorous insight. Eager to learn and with no filter, Shane asks questions that veer from innocuous to highly sexual, the character desperate to acquire the knowledge that his gay friends have acquired over the years.
But underneath the comedy – and beneath Shane’s innocent skin – is another layer, a darker piece altogether. When he feels cornered, Shane erupts with an internalised homophobia that is a holdover from his traumatic childhood – a life ago that returns with force when his older brother Ben (also played by Mitcham) tracks down his sibling.
Direct Adam Spreadbury-Maher (who also directed this play at the King’s Head in 2017 and its transfer to the now-defunct Trafalgar Studios the following year) helps keep this more serious side in balance with the comedy. It’s a fine line to tread, and one that relies heavily on Olympic diver-turned-actor Mitcham’s ability to provide two very different character performances. Truth be told, he’s rather more comfortable as the slightly aloof, sexually confident Will than as the out-of-towner who loves, but is sickened by, his younger brother.
Mitcham can’t quite pull off this second character, although the similarities of his portrayals of Will and Ben play into the playwright’s intentions somewhat. A conversation between the two brothers about their childhood experiences – and the love that endures despite a shared pain – is effectively managed by both Mitcham and Ansdell. Both performers gain strength from the interactions with Connery-Brown, who elevates his older character far beyond the waspish caricature he starts out as.
Originally a contemporary play, Strangers in Between has shifted into a period piece, but the questions it poses about how queer “found families” (especially those of gay men) are formed are timeless. As long as kids feel the need to escape from home situations in which they cannot be themselves, Tommy Murphy’s moving comedy will have relevance.
Continues until 7 October 2023