Last night, in Melbourne, I saw a new production of Tommy Murphy’s Strangers in Between. It’s a play I developed with Tommy at Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney back in 2004/05, before directing the premiere at Griffin in 2005. It was such a show of strength from Tommy that I quickly commissioned him to adapt Holding the Man, which we got on stage a bit over a year later.
I hadn’t seen the play onstage since then, and perhaps because of that I was caught off-guard. Here was a mature play, perfectly measured. Tommy was only 24 when he wrote it, but scene after scene displays a writer in clear command of comedy, character and, perhaps most impressively, of the contours of human emotion.
It’s also, in the words of director Daniel Lammin, ‘a play whose heart is wholly good’. You can’t fake that. And it’s emboldened with that heart’s blood that the actors thrive. Wil King inhabits Shane, Guy Simon summons up two fantastically different characters with disarming ease, and Simon Burke brings an ocean of understanding and, well, love.
It was particularly special to see Simon play this role. Back in 2004, Simon participated in the very first workshop of the play at Griffin, reading the same role he essayed tonight, and for which he was then much too young. When we transferred Tommy’s Holding the Man to London’s West End in 2010, Simon, then living in London, graciously took on one of the roles for the ten-week run. During that run, a reading of ‘Strangers in Between’ was given, and Simon read that role once again. I guess it was always meant to be, somewhere, sometime.
Strangers in Between has ghosts in its bones. And for me, last night, as I breathed with the artists in front of me, I also sat with the ghosts of that wonderful original cast – Sam Dunn, Brett Stiller and Anthony Phelan – remembering them living in Alice Babidge's designs and appreciating afresh the love they brought. Like these new actors, they filled characters who manage to close the in-between gaps and make family. What a thing, to bring a play to life. And what a thing to renew a play, allowing it to speak with clear new currency. At both these things, and for the lives these characters seize, I dropped a tear or two.
Strangers in Between heads to Sydney’s Seymour Centre in a few days. See it. Like all of Tommy’s plays, it speaks of love. And we are always in need of that.