The Strays

Review by Anton Bitel @AntBit

Directed by

Nathaniel Martello-White


Ashley Madekwe Bukky Bakray


Never heard of this.


A plot as mercurial as its self-denying heroine.

In Retrospect.

A shocking parable of race and class betrayal.

A woman who has worked hard to hide her past finds she can't run from it forever in Nathaniel Martello-White's assured debut.

Living beyond her means and longing for better than her London housing estate can offer, Cheryl (Ashley Madekwe) is defined by dissatisfaction – and so she packs up and walks out, ignoring the increasingly angry phone messages from husband Michael, and leaving a note on the fridge (“just popping to the hairdresser’s”) that is already clearly a lie. 

The extent of Cheryl’s escapist mentality and determined adaptability at the beginning of writer/director Nathaniel Martello-White’s feature debut The Strays is revealed when, some years later, we find her living in a leafy, upper middle class Wiltshire village. Despite a lack of supporting references, she has become deputy head at an exclusive private school, and is about to put on her first charity gala in the luxuriously appointed home that she shares with loving husband Ian (Justin Salinger) and their teenage 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’ is telling. For try as she might with her posh accent, her bourgeois posturing and her wigged hair, one thing will always prevent her – and her children – from ever integrating completely into the community, 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 – literally ‘snow’, a word revealingly associated with both melting transience and whiteness. What Cheryl cannot conceal is the colour of her skin, instantly marking her as alien in this all-white village. 

However desperate Cheryl is to fit into her adopted neighbourhood, the repressed keeps returning: in the nightmares that haunt Cheryl’s subconscious; in the irritation that her straight-haired wigs increasingly cause her scalp (a literalised itch that cannot be scratched); or in the cornrows, identified a little too quickly by Amanda’s husband Barry (Tom Andrews) as ‘ethnic’, which Mary starts sporting.

For even as Cheryl eschews her origins, her own mixed-race children are becoming interested in exploring the roots of their otherness. Meanwhile, the past that Cheryl believes she has finally left behind is about to appear in her rearview mirror, as two young black strangers (Jorden Myrie, Bukky Bakray) will materialise like vengeful ghosts, and insinuate themselves on the periphery of Cheryl’s 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 clearer that Cheryl is not the only elusive impostor in The Strays. 

“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 that makes up The Strays, which begins as a psychological study of personal identity and the ravaging after-effects of transformation, but is also a Mike Leigh-style social drama, complete with Cheryl’s secrets & lies culminating in home truths at Abigail’s party. More surprises will follow, 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 portrays the deep, scarring damage encoded by differences of class and race. Cheryl’s high aspirations ensure that her code-switching will always be only in one direction – 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 claim, but she must pick through the curdled mess that results from the violent collision of her past and present.

Hidden in Martello-White’s bold, assured calling card is a 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. Cheryl’s internalised racism, quixotic self-repudiation and yearning for what she cannot have are both a tragedy of delusion, and a horrific legacy for the next generation of uprooted strays.

Published 21 Feb 2023

Tags: Nathaniel Martello-White


Never heard of this.


A plot as mercurial as its self-denying heroine.

In Retrospect.

A shocking parable of race and class betrayal.

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