The Strays

The Strays (2023)

The Strays first published (in a substantially shorter version) by Little White Lies, 21 Feb 2023

“I shouldn’t be where I am now. I want more, is it wrong to want more?”

So says Cheryl Blake (Ashley Madekwe) at the beginning of writer/director Nathaniel Martello-White’s feature debut The Strays. Alone in her apartment on a London housing estate, Cheryl is on the phone complaining about her low station and lack of promotion, even as her sister reminds her from the other end of the line, “You and Michael need to stop living fancily off those credit cards.” Cheryl is defined by her dissatisfaction, by her  deep longing to move on from her present circumstances and by her desire for better. And so she packs a bag, takes a roll of cash, and heads out, ignoring the increasingly angry phone messages from Michael, and leaving a note on the fridge (“just popping to the hairdresser’s”) that we can already see is a blatant lie. 

The extent of Cheryl’s escapist mobility and determined adaptability will be revealed in the next chapter, set some years later, which shows how much her life has been transformed. For now Cheryl lives in the leafy, upper middle class village of Castle Combe  in Wiltshire. Despite a lack of supporting references, the one-time hairdresser has become a theology teacher and deputy head at the exclusive private school nearby, and is about to put on her first charity gala in theluxuriously appointed home that she shares with loving husband Ian (Justin Salinger) and their teenaged children Sebastian (Samuel Small) and Mary (Maria Almeida). “You’re practically one of us,” she is reassured by local lady-who-lunches Amanda (Lucy Liemann)

Yet that modifier ‘practically’ – which Cheryl immediately, expressly picks up on – is telling. For try as she might with her poshified accent, her bourgeois posturing and her wigged hair, there is one thing that will always make her – and also her two children – stand out in this community and prevent them from ever integrating completely, no matter how accommodating and accepting the likes of Amanda may be. Cheryl has tried everything to disguise her background, and in this radical repression of her own history, has even changed her name to Neve – which revealingly derives from a word meaning ‘snow’, that substance associated with both easily melting transience and whiteness. Yet what Cheryl cannot conceal is the colour of her skin, which instantly marks her as alien in this all-white village. 

In other words, The Strays is concerned with an elusive impostor, desperate to fit into her adopted neighbourhood. Yet here the repressed keeps returning, in the form of the nightmares that haunt Cheryl’s subconscious, or of the irritation that her straight-haired wigs increasingly cause her scalp (a literalised itch that cannot be scratched), at the same time as Mary is experimenting with a cornrowed hairstyle that Amanda’s husband Barry (Tom Andrews) is a little too quick to identify as ‘ethnic’. For even as Cheryl eschews her origins, her own mixed-race children are becoming interested in exploring the roots, so to speak, of their otherness. Meanwhile, the past that Cheryl believes she has finally left behind her is about to appear in her rearview mirror, as two young strangers (Jorden Myrie, Bukky Bakray), their skin colour the same as hers, will materialise like vengeful ghosts, and insinuate themselves on the periphery of her otherwise cosy outlook, before coming closer to home. Their insistent presence triggers all Cheryl’s guilt and anxiety over who she really is, what she has sacrificed, and how easily she might be found out, even as it becomes ever more clear that Cheryl is not the only impostor here. 

“It hasn’t been a straightforward journey,” Cheryl will later say of her own peculiar, upwardly mobile flight from herself and her own. Her words might also describe the twisty, chronologically crooked narrative (unfolding in four formally headed chapters) that makes up The Strays, which begins as a psychological study of personal identity and the ravaging after-effects of metamorphosis, but is also a Mike Leigh-style social drama, complete with Cheryl’s secrets & lies culminating in home truths at (someone calling herself) Abigail’s party. There are also plenty of surprises to come, as an unnerving, chilling clash of cultures plays out as much within as between Cheryl and her kin. As tensions mount in the domestic sphere, and all the game-playing gets deadly serious, Martello-White introduces notes of Michael Haneke, Thomas Clay and Jordan Peele to this vision of English parochialism. 

Ultimately The Strays is a portrait of the deep, scarring damage done by deeply encoded differences of class and race. Cheryl just wants to conform to a new environment and milieu where she can never fully belong, and her high aspirations ensure that her code-switching will always be only in one direction – and yet the life that she has abandoned still has claims on her, and so her own slippery, fugitive nature contrasts with the descendants unhappily stuck in her trail. 

“The two worlds don’t mix,” Cheryl will say – and yet she must pick through the curdled mess that results from the violent collision of her past and present. Hidden in this bold, assured calling card from Martello-White is a thoughtful, provocative allegory of black experience in white Britain, as characters get caught in an evolving conflict between estrangement and assimilation, individualism and inauthenticity, pride and self-loathing. The message is hammered home by the song over the closing credits, Lord Kitchener’s If You’re Not White You’re Black. Cheryl’s internalised racism, her quixotic self-repudiation and her yearning for what she cannot have are both a tragedy of delusion, and a horrific legacy for the next generation of uprooted strays.

strap: Nathaniel Martello-White’s thrilling feature debut switches codes and genres as it springs the trap of class and race in Little Britain

© Anton Bitel