Saturday 27 January 2018

Strangers in Between - Midsumma Festival review

There's nothing more important than family, let that be the family you are given or the family you make. In Tommy Murphy's Strangers In Between, a young man dealing with his sexuality escapes from his small city of Gouldburn to Sydney's Kings Cross in order to find himself, but in the process ends up finding a family to support and guide him. While this production was first staged in Sydney in 2005, and there are elements of it that are still relevant to today's society, its place in 2018 is difficult to pinpoint.

Murphy's script shoots out genuinely funny gags and witty one-liners like rapid-fire, but in return we rarely spend any time getting to know the supporting characters that are far more of interest than the protagonist. This might be Shane's story, a young, white male coming to terms with his homosexuality, but in 2018 his story is nothing we haven't heard before and so audience engagement wanes. Shane's naivety also begins to wear thin very quickly, particularly with the inconsistencies of his character where he is able to find a job and get his own one-bedroom apartment but then has no idea what his medicare number is or how to even get one.

However, there is some impressive work by the cast, particularly from Guy Simon in the dual role of Will and Ben, although why one role was not written with a second actor in mind is a curious decision by Murphy. With the only visual difference between them being a red flannel shirt, it lessens the authenticity of both characters and the dedicated work that Simon is creating. Simon Burke does well with the older Peter who takes Shane in under his wing. Despite his dry humour, Burke conveys the loneliness and sadness of Peter's life with his nuanced performance.

Wil King as Shane keeps the energy levels high and when you consider he is on stage the entire time, his performance is all that more impressive. He especially shares great chemistry with Simon, evident during the scenes as his brother Ben. These moments are also a good opportunity for King to be given a chance to display Shane's innermost thoughts with a slightly toned down approach. 

When a show decides to have seats to the side of the stage, it needs to cater to the audience sitting there. Unfortunately, Daniel Lammin's direction plays purely to the front of the stage and so for most of Strangers In Between, I was seeing back of heads. At times, the direction lacks movement with actors standing still or sitting down for too long and perhaps this is the outcome of the production's stripped back approach to its design. That being said, Lammin does his best work in this show in his handling of the sex scene, which is one of the best I've seen - or not seen - on stage, and the touching final scene with all three characters.

The set design by Abbie Lea Hough is not as effective as it could be with a single prop of a bathtub taking centre stage for the entire production, which is only used in the final few minutes of the show. At one point, the bathtub is awkwardly used as seats in a bar when having two actual seats would have been far more ideal. The silver tinsel curtains that run along the back of the stage are a nice touch in hinting at what awaits Shane.

While its heart is in the right place in its exploration of what makes family and about the gay community supporting each other, Strangers In Between is a story that has been told many times before over the last thirteen years. While it speaks to the gay community of that era, perhaps we need to start focusing on telling the untold and unheard stories of the LGBTQIA community of that era.

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Season: Until 11 February | Tue - Sat 7:30pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets: Full $45 | Concession $38 
Bookings: Midsumma Festival

Photo Credit: Sarah Walker 

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