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Review: Strangers in Between (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Tommy Murphy’s three-hander transfers from the King's Head Theatre

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Roly Botha and Dan Hunter
© Andreas Grieger

Set in Sydney's King's Cross quarter back when it was still Party Central, Tommy Murphy's comedy-drama has an agreeably dated feel. The representation of gay men as sex-, booze- and drug-fuelled hedonists with essentially good hearts is reminiscent, initially at least, of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and early Jonathan Harvey, but it turns out Murphy is aiming at something infinitely darker.

Gauche, nervy, late teenager Shane (Roly Botha) is new to the big city but is haunted by a troubled past. He meets a couple of contrasting, more mature gay guys (Dan Hunter's muscular, supercool Will and Stephen Connery-Brown's wise-cracking but gentle, older Peter) during the course of a disastrous first shift at the local ‘bottle-o' (off-license, to us Brits). Murphy's script is peppered with terrific one-liners (Connery-Brown gets the lion share of them and delivers like a master), and Shane's eye-watering naivety is splendidly caught, asking questions about where to buy coat hangers in one breath, then enquiring about the mechanics of anal sex in the next.

Unfortunately the writing falters when things get serious, which when it happens in Adam Spreadbury-Maher's production, is with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: Shane is gay but is clearly a product of his unworldly upbringing, and having him flying into hysterical homophobic ranting every time he's faced with a situation he can't handle makes him tiresome company for the audience as much as the onstage characters. Similarly, the willingness of apparently urbane characters to divulge huge swathes of information about themselves to virtual strangers feels like lazy storytelling.

Botha is very likeable but needs to bring down the juddering neuroses several notches: this kind of overacting would probably read well in a 1000 seat house but becomes increasingly hard to watch in a space as small as the Traf two. Hunter is superb as honest, as-kind-as-possible Will, and impressively doubles as Shane's elusive, abusive brother who isn't all that he initially seems to be. Best of all is Connery-Brown who invests kindly, conflicted, lonely Peter with a dignity and biting wit that is a few steps ahead of Murphy's text. It's a beautiful performance.

The final picture – of a trio of new-found friends sticking together in the face of personal crisis – is undeniably lovely but doesn't feel fully earned, and the 90-minute performance would play better without the interval. Overall, there is a sense of incompleteness about this intermittently engaging play, as though it still needs a few more drafts.

Strangers in Between runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 3 February.

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