Sex with Strangers

Theatre, Comedy
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Emilia Fox and Theo James star in a bland US romcom

The oo-er missus title is about as exciting as it gets in ‘Sex with Strangers’, a British premiere of a contemporary play by the prolific American playwright and ‘House of Cards’ writer Laura Eason, whose work hasn’t been staged before in the UK. Eason applies Twitter-age dilemmas to a sped-up love affair between two writers: Olivia (Emilia Fox) and Ethan (Theo James). She’s a literary professor in her late thirties, loves the smell of books and has one highly-regarded, little-read book behind her; he’s younger, brasher, has a best-selling ‘internet memoir’ and blog called ‘Sex with Strangers’ to his name (guess what it’s about) and has heart palpitations when he can’t get wifi.

Eason’s play thrusts these two strangers together in a snowy Michigan cabin, a writers’ retreat where they immediately start sizing each other up, physically, intellectually, emotionally. It’s like the car trip in ‘When Harry Met Sally’, only the sex starts almost immediately. Eason invites us into a bubble only to ask us to watch it slowly burst: the second act takes place in Olivia’s New York apartment and by now their initial identities – real and imagined – have started to blur as they find out more about each other and how they’re perceived by the wider world through their work and their public, especially digital, profiles.

The high-profile casting suggests sex and star appeal, and there’s a likeable energy and spark between James and Fox, but the play itself isn’t up-to-scratch. It’s fitfully amusing and insightful, but mostly it’s meandering, limp and lacking in bite and strong ideas. Getting the social-media age right in drama is about as hard as making a coherent argument in less than 140 characters: it’s too easy to look out of date, out of touch, out of time, and that’s the problem here: you feel that Eason is only partially interested in the digital angle, and yet it’s central to her play. It feels like paying lip-service to modernity. It doesn’t help that Peter Dubois’s production too often feels like a middle-of-the-road big-screen rom-com, from the literal design and smooth-core sex scenes to the infuriating drive-time music that plays during steamy scene changes and fades to black. The most exciting thing about this play is imagining potential punters googling 'sex with strangers Hampstead'. Racy name, sleepy play.

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