Simon Burke stars in this home-grown drama by the playwright behind Holding the Man
It’s only a little more than a decade since Tommy Murphy’s wrenching Sydney drama Strangers in Between premiered, but the 2005 play now feels very much like a period piece. Many of the struggles faced by its protagonist – a gay teenager named Shane (Wil King) who has run away from his family, friends and home in Goulburn to live in Kings Cross – wouldn’t be quite the same now smartphones are ubiquitous.
Shane needs community and support, but most of all he needs information about how to live and care for himself. He’d now end up looking for all of that using a device in his pocket. He wouldn’t end up striking up conversations with strangers in bars to ask important questions about doing laundry or purchasing coathangers.
But it’s Shane’s charming naivety that fuels most of the action in this play that’s bitingly funny but laced with melancholy. Murphy, who adapted Holding the Man for stage and screen, perfectly captures the sense that Shane is a fish out of water, having to quickly adjust to a new environment. Along the way he meets Peter (Simon Burke), an older gay man who becomes an unlikely mother figure, and Will, a beautiful young man who sleeps with Shane and becomes a total infatuation.
When it becomes clear that Shane hasn’t been telling these two men the whole truth, he finds himself suddenly very alone.
It’s that sense of isolation that comes through strongest in Daniel Lammin’s production, with its sparse set by Abbie Lea Hough and a sound design by Raya Slavin that authentically evokes the sounds of the Cross. But the focus is almost entirely on the actors, who have convincing interpersonal chemistry.
King is appropriately boyish as Shane and finds all of his character’s anxiety and uncertainty as he stumbles dangerously through this new chapter in his life, jumping at the slightest noise – or the smallest sleight against his masculinity. Simon leaps between his two roles with great ease – he has an understated sexiness as Will and a sadness that’s transformed to violence as Ben.
But it’s Burke who all but steals the show as Peter, winning laughs with a wry and completely underplayed camp humour. Beneath that steeliness – and the character’s own significant flaws and trauma – there’s extraordinary tenderness in the performance.
Stories of young gay men moving to the big smoke and finding a community are pretty popular in theatre. But Murphy’s writing is made of tougher stuff than most, dealing with the crushing realities that face individuals forced out of home. It ends with a touch of sweetness but never becomes too saccharine, acknowledging the near impossibility of forging strong relationships when you’re simply fighting for social and economic survival.
Strangers in Between is very much about a time that’s slipped through our fingers with startling speed. But the story at its core about our innate human need for family, support and personal connections – particularly for those who find it difficult to find these things in their biological family – won’t feel dated anytime soon.