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Photo by Sarah Walker

Strangers In Between

Cameron Lukey and Don't Be Down productions in association with fortyfivedownstairs and the Seymour Centre present STRANGERS IN BETWEEN, by Tommy Murphy, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, 14 February - 2 March, 2018

STRANGERS IN BETWEEN, is a revival production of Australian writer, Tommy Murphy’s 2005 play. This play won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2006, and it is satisfying to see that there was some good reckoning in giving this play such recognition, as this present production at the Seymour Centre reveals it as a timeless insight into its world.

Director, Daniel Lammin, has with his Designers: Set and Costume by Abbie Lea Hough; Lighting by Rob Sowinski (associate, Bryn Cullen) and Sound by Raya Slavin, come up with solutions that place the scenarios of the play clearly and securely in our imaginations with sufficient suggestive but minimal detail, that is enough to throw the weight, the emphasis, of the storytelling onto the writing by Mr Murphy and his actors: Simon Burke (Peter), Wil King (Shane) and Guy Simon (Will/Ben). Those qualities of presentation are well judged.

These three actors have mined the potentialities of Mr Murphy’s characters as living and breathing humans of deep three dimensional pulse. We come to care, empathise and recognise the people and the situation. We are not just moved but also appropriately amused, shocked and celebratory to see this ‘gay’ world in its culture of survival, being revealed to the community, at large.

Shane recognising his ‘difference’ and having lived through discrimination and violence, even from his adored brother, Ben, flees his country town and seeks refuge in Sydney’s Kings Cross – the heart of the site of many displaced individuals, a kind of ‘bohemia’. He is 16 years old and has little savvy knowledge on how to navigate his way, though he has developing wiles enough to lie about his age to manage to find accommodation and a job – in an off-licence ‘bottolo’.

It is there that he meets and develops his first contacts that gradually reveal themselves, amongst other encounters, as the cornerstones of what the Director calls ‘the logical family’, quoting from American writer Armistead Maupin (of TALES OF THE CITY fame): “Sooner or later, though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.” The family that we choose, in a community we can, generally, trust.

Shane soon meets young Will and begins an ‘affair’ of attraction and explosive sexual expression that teaches him stuff about ‘love’ and subsequent health consequences that he had never even dreamed of. The relationship is at once naively innocent – though biologically, animalistically charged – and ‘funny’, but, also, one that in its turn can be brutal, shocking and hurtful. In sheer panic, generated by fear and ignorance, Shane unleashes his internal homophobia, reflective of his country community’s upbringing, as he navigates through the landscape of his chosen world. Fortunately, Shane has also found an older man, Peter, who takes him under his wing and who provides not only, occasionally, food and shelter but wisdom and ‘sanctuary’ – a responsible adopting and adopted ‘parent’ in the maze of a tough living reality.

It is in the observed wisdom of Mr Murphy’s writing that he can present what the outside world, strangers to this place of ‘refuge’, might regard as ‘dangerous intentions’ and shift the gaze to the basic humanities of these three men, to see how these individuals, all three, become survivors across generational needs in a ‘hostile’ world. We meet three strangers in part of the odyssey between the innocence and knowledge of Shane’s coming-of-age journey.

Wil King, is absurdly wonderful as the guarded but ‘wild’ adventurer, in turns, breathlessly outrageously funny and vehemently frightening in Shane’s reactive naivity through his Pilgrim’s Progress across the “City of the Plains” in the guise of Sydney.

Simon Burke, as Peter, the honest wise survivor of a life that has required him to wear a mask to survive, which he can slip off and on, with ease and strength, at the required times, touches a depth of insightful knowledge of what the older ‘gay’ generation needed to weave to survive. His Peter is wryly ‘camp’ and flowing with the goodness of learnt empathy. Peter, in the ‘hands’ of Mr Burke, touches one greatly.

Guy Simon, plays a juggle of opposites, superbly: Will, the young but more experienced ‘gay’ of the Cross finding, too, his way to live a life with more ease about himself, and Ben, the self-lacerating, potentially violent brother from the country. Mr Simon is an actor of profound subtleties and even on the stage has a relaxed cinematic second-by-second ‘cluing’ that gives an audience a rich experience into both of his men. He is remarkable in the feats he offers us.

Sitting in the Reginald Theatre this company of attuned actors, together, gathered my audience into the world of the characters and their dilemmas. We became involved swiftly, ‘lost’ in it – laughing, gasping, fearing – the interval was an intrusion! These actors responding to the quality of the observations of Mr Murphy and to the skilful ‘language’ of the writing on the page, gives the 40th Anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Arts Program a genuinely sophisticated Australian work of universal quality as a gift for Sydney. Nearly 13 years old, set in another time, STRANGERS IN BETWEEN, still is as instructive, as enjoyable today, as it was on its debut at the SBW Stables Theatre.

Like the American Musical up at the Hayes Theatre, THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, the ‘politics’ at the centre of this work is an important social history recall that puts the importance of the Mardi Gras Parade into serious and appreciative perspective. Do go and see for your self.