Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York) | Review – Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift are outstanding in the show’s West End debut

Sarah Kirkup
Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Superb performances illuminate Jim Barne and Kit Buchan’s heart-warming two-hander

Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift (image credit: Tristram Kenton)
Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift (image credit: Tristram Kenton)

The story of Two Stranger’s journey to the West End is almost as heart-warming as the show’s romcom-with-a-twist plot.

Back in 2022, for the launch issue of Musicals magazine, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Hadley, the executive director of Musical Theatre Network (MTN) which, together with Mercury Musicals Development (MMD), produces the biennial new-work showcase event BEAM. Through Hadley, I was introduced to Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, the composer-lyricist duo who scored success at BEAM in 2018 with the first musical either of them had ever written – The Season (as it was then called). Following successful runs in 2019 at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton and the New Wolsey in Ipswich, the newly christened Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York) came to the Kiln Theatre in North West London in late 2023. Fast forward a few months and it’s now making its West End premiere. As Buchan told Musicals back in our launch issue, BEAM was a real turning point, both for the show and in terms of the exposure the event gave him and Barne as writers: they went on to win the Stiles + Drewe Mentorship Award in 2018 and The Stage Debut Award in 2020. ‘At BEAM, we felt buoyed up by the effusiveness and camaraderie of the new-writing community,’ Buchan said.

Tutty's Dougal and Gift's Robin on the town with dad's credit card (image credit: Tristram Kenton)

On the back of the recent Olivier win for Best New Musical for Operation Mincemeat – which, funnily enough, was also part of that BEAM 2018 showcase – the arrival of Two Strangers to the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly is a heartening reminder that homegrown, grassroots Musical Theatre in the UK is alive and kicking, so long as producers continue to be willing to take risks and support the development of these smaller shows. It can take time – Barne and Buchan started writing Two Strangers in 2016 – but surely the best things are worth waiting for?

That would certainly be my takeaway from the Two Strangers West End press night, which saw the art deco theatre – currently celebrating its 150th anniversary – filled to the rafters. The intimate, pink-hued auditorium (described on one London tourist website as ‘like the inside of a wedding cake’ – how apt) is the perfect setting for this two-hander, during which Sam Tutty’s Dougal and Dujonna Gift’s Robin barely leave the stage. Tutty and Gift, reprising the roles they debuted at the Kiln, are a match made in heaven. It may just be the two of them onstage, but it feels like there are many more – from Robin’s fellow barista Tony at the coffee shop where she works, to the stroppy Uber driver, to Robin’s demanding sister (and bride-to-be) Melissa, to Dougal’s elusive dad Mark. That’s testament both to the writing – it’s a dynamite script, fast-paced and quick-witted yet filled with moments of pathos (but never sentimentality) – and the acting. Tutty and Gift have a natural rapport, genuinely delighting in each other’s comic timing and blending beautifully vocally even though their instruments couldn’t be more different.

Gift possesses a voice that's soulful and expressive (image credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

Soutra Gilmour’s set uses two towering piles of suitcases on a revolve, suggesting travel and momentum, but also the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty (which enthusiastic tourist Dougal is desperate to see). Certain suitcases transform, when required, into mini bars, wardrobes, cash registers – even a noodle bar.

We open with a hilarious ‘conversation’ between two radios nestled into the two towers, the London broadcast focusing on the weather and football, the New York channel full of adverts. When Dougal and Robin first meet at the airport, that culture clash is immediately evident: he loves Marmite, she has no idea what it is (‘It looks like shit!); he high-fives strangers on the subway, she resolutely dons her headphones. New Yorker Robin is, officially, Dougal’s soon-to-be aunt (of sorts) since her older sister is marrying Dougal’s estranged dad, but she seems reluctant to embrace her new British ‘nephew’ (for reasons which soon become clear) – in fact, she can’t wait to get rid of him. But, rather like an over-excited puppy desperate for affection, Dougal’s persistence breaks through Robin’s frosty exterior. By owning up to who he is – essentially a dorky, Home Alone-obsessed cinema usher who, at 25, still lives at home with his mum – he shows Robin that keeping your head down and putting one foot in front of the other isn’t the only way to live. Meanwhile, as Robin’s barriers dissolve, she helps him to accept that he is enough – with or without his father.

The musical numbers, performed by a superb four-piece band (two keyboards, guitar, drums) from the wings, vary from upbeat bangers to whimsical musings to melancholic ballads. Opener ‘New York’ is a standout, suiting Tutty’s perky, Evan Hansen-channelled nervous energy – ‘I’m already talking the talk, I’m already popping the cork’ – to a tee. In ‘Dad’, to a simple piano-chord accompaniment, he finds a child-like innocence in addressing the man he’s never met – ‘I got mostly Ds and Cs in my GSCEs / I got measles, mumps and chickenpox, and coeliacs disease.’ And, in ‘About To Go In’, perhaps the most heart-breaking song of all, he leaves a voicemail for his mum as he stands outside the church, about to meet his dad for the first time. The delivery is completely understated, and all the more effective for being so.

Tutty and Gift, on Soutra Gilmour's suitcase-tower revolving set (image credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

Gift’s soulful, expressive voice, meanwhile, is vulnerable in ‘What’ll It Be’, and energetically charged in ‘This Is The Place’ in which she revisits her childhood haunts and we see a glimpse of the girl she used to be. She reveals the full gamut of her vocal range and emotions in the ‘I want’ song, ‘Be Happy’, but still manages to save reserves for the 11 o’clock number ‘This Year’.

When the pair sing together, as in the closer ‘If I Believed’, it’s effortless, and the harmonies are gorgeous. By contrast, Act Two opener ‘The Argument’ could be described as a ‘rap fight’, revealing yet another facet to Barne and Buchan’s writing style.

There are multiple laugh-out-loud moments: Dougal doing an impression of a ‘hood gangster, to which Robin replies: ‘They have Black people in England, right?’; Dougal offering Robin a ‘New York wiener’ (‘Nobody says that’ is Robin’s retort), before confessing to have eaten an entire layer of the wedding cake from out of the bin; and ‘American Express’, where the pair go on a spending spree with Dougal’s dad’s credit card. ‘The Hangover Duet’, to open Act Two, is also comedy gold, Dougal whooping and crooning into an empty champagne bottle while Robin throws up in the bathroom.

In most romcoms, the boy gets the girl – but that’s not the point of Two Strangers. In fact, personally I’d rather romance wasn’t even hinted at – I’d much prefer to see Robin end up with Justin (and his dog Rufus) off Tinder. Is their mock wedding a premonition, or just a humorous diversion? Does the message in Robin’s fortune cookie – ‘This time next year you’ll be happy’ – mean she’ll find happiness with Dougal or that she’ll find happiness within herself? I hope it’s the latter. If the show has an overriding message, surely it’s one of self-acceptance and forgiveness; of unconditional friendship; and of letting go of the past. As Dougal says, ‘The only good thing about weddings is the cake.’ For once, Robin agrees.

Production credits

Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York)

Criterion Theatre, 23 April 2024

Starring: Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift

Two Strangers is booking until 14 July 2024 – for more information and tickets, visit