It’s a skill anyone in London soon learns, the art of avoiding eye contact even when you are jammed in like sardines on the Tube, managing to not interact with the people whose bodies are mere inches away! Or as Nell Rayner puts it in her beautifully lyrical Strangers ‘That’s what you do, you ignore other people, like they ignore you.’
Rayner takes that idea and multiplies it fourfold, giving us four disparate individuals, all of whom fail to make the connection that would elevate those they meet from strangers to acquaintances and – who knows? – even friends. It’s a simple story, in so much as there is no real story. Rather, we’re given a glimpse into the characters’ day-to-day lives through one year. We get to know them, laugh with them or feel sad for them, yet all the time not quite knowing them properly. Because how can you truly know someone whose name you never ask?
For all its surface simplicity, beneath this play is incredibly complex. The four stories intertwine, occasionally crashing together, at other times swerving to avoid each other, over and over and over, until a shared moment of tragedy breaks down the walls and our four strangers finally connect.
It is Rayner’s writing that is the absolute star here. She manages to turn four ordinary lives into something enticing, creating characters we want to know better, who we want to see making connections. But more than that, it is the beauty of her writing that shines. At times her words roll like the sweetest poetry from the performers’ tongues.
The complexity of the script requires four confident actors, and that is what we get, each bringing their character to life. Meghan Mabli’s barrista is thoughtful, watchful, caring. Maria-Vittoria Albertini Petroni is slightly scatty, outwardly positive and cheerful. Jennah Finnegan is running away from a relationship and clearly still yearning for what she has left behind. Finally, Eve Wilson’s HR professional is too busy with work to find time for others, however much she craves company. What connects them though is that all four are lonely, even when surrounded by others. It’s Wilson whose performance stands out, her delivery bringing the script to life even more as every couplet rolls beautifully from her.
Jodie Braddick‘s directing allows the four to share the space, their movement well considered in how each takes the centre stage and interacts with the others whilst never truly connecting. This is aided by lighting that draws attention to each in turn, but still leaves enough light on the remaining cast so we can see them in the background carrying on with their everyday life.
The most beautiful moments come though when all of the characters share the script. It becomes a monologue told in four voices, each picking up sentences started by others, as if in sharing the speech it is showing us that, however different they may be, their lives are still remarkably similar with their loneliness and yearning to make a connection.
Strangers is a stunning success and an endorsement for Act II Festival where it first performed as a short play. Its transition to a full hour allows it the time and space it warrants to really bring the characters to life and demonstrate the strength of its writing. It’s a beautiful play that is deserving of its transfer to Lion and Unicorn Theatre. Maybe it will remind us next time someone tries to strike up a conversation on the Tube to perhaps not awkwardly ignore them but instead say hello, or even ask their name.
Written by: Nell Rayner
Directed by: Jodie Braddick
Strangers plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 1 July. Further information and tickets available here.