Friday, 17 February 2012

Theatre review: Sex With A Stranger

Big Favourite Round These Parts, Russell Tovey returns to the stage for the first time in three years in Sex With A Stranger, written for him by his Him & Her screenwriter Stefan Golaszewski. In fact it's probably fair to say Russell Tovey is the dictionary definition of a Big Favourite Round These Parts so if you were expecting a particularly insightful review you may want to lower those expectations now, and just settle for an endless stream of Too Much Information. Frankly, any section of this review that doesn't just consist of the word "nipples" should be treated as a bonus. We were front row centre in Trafalgar Studio 2 so this was basically porn to me, and that's just the bits where he kept his kit on.

Golaszewski's previous stage plays, a pair of monologues he performed himself in a double bill, got a genuinely mixed reaction from me: I was charmed by the first, put off by the second. So as far as the play itself went, I came to this not knowing what to expect. Here he turns his attention to relationships again, and the particular microcosm of long-term relationships that typifies his sitcom. Although in this case it's a relationship that one person seems to be into more than the other. The play's format is very short (sometimes just a few seconds) scenes played out of order. There's a lot of jumping around in time, occasionally quite far into the past and future, but mainly focusing on two chunks of time in the same 24 hours: The titular event of Adam (Tovey) chatting up Grace (Jaime Winstone) in a club and going home with her for sex; and then the day leading up to it, as we see Adam prepare for his night out in the comfortable boredom of his relationship with Ruth (Naomi Sheldon,) the partner he lives with and presumably hasn't told Grace about.

This happily fits into the half of Golaszewski's work that I really enjoy. Director Phillip Breen draws out the incredibly awkward comedy of the long journey home between two strangers deciding to have sex, and it actually happening. Where the writer's keen ear for the banalities of day-to-day conversation rarely gets a laugh from me in Him & Her, here the excruciating chit-chat as the night bus refuses to arrive, then takes ages when it does, only to drop them off quite a long walk from Grace's flat (but pretty convenient for Homebase) are spot on and very funny every time. Tovey's immediate likeability and comic timing are in evidence as ever and while I'm openly biased in his favour, every time I see him on stage his easy presence reminds me what made me a fan in the first place. Though the praise for his screen work is deserved, I still think he's a much better stage actor and it's a shame these appearances have become so rare (he recently said he'd like to do a play a year, and up until A Miracle he seemed to be managing it; I think it needs to be passed into law that he should continue to do so. It's tragic that he has virtually no Shakespearean experience so will probably never be Hamlet, and the headline "Tovey or not Tovey" will remain unused.) This likeability does make it interesting though that the part was written specifically with him in mind as, despite the fact that he's almost always behaving badly towards his girlfriend, whether by cheating on her, making insinuations about her weight or simply being too lazy to admit he should break up with her, Adam remains sympathetic, and it seems Golaszewski doesn't want us to see him as simply the villain; perhaps more a victim of circumstance who then only makes things worse.

Tovey is on-stage for most of the show and carries it well but he's well-matched by his duo of leading ladies. Winstone is perky and likeable from the off as what appears to be a slutty blonde but gets more reticent as the night goes on and the alcohol wears off. She's very funny in her constant delaying tactics once they get to the flat (this being evidently a fantasy piece about a parallel universe where one might have second thoughts about sexing Russell Tovey) and the two of them share a couple of hilariously soggy snogs. Sheldon is also very good in the most straightforwardly dramatic of the three roles, though her predicament too is shown in the most crushingly down-to-earth ways - some of the desperate chit-chat between Adam and Grace is about how nice his shirt is; cut to Ruth painstakingly ironing it for him a few hours earlier. But she's not short of the comic chops when needed either - her death stare at the woman taking more than six items to the express till is gold.

The show's pretty much sold out but if you do get the chance it's definitely recommended on its own merits, even before we get to its leading man's particular physical charms. Russell Tovey's famous arse doesn't get unveiled here like it did in his last play, although it does make an appearance in some tight white boxers, which is not unpleasant. Tovey also gets his shirt off several times (and yet nobody thought these would be the scenes to take publicity pictures of? DO THESE PEOPLE KNOW NOTHING etc.) His frequent nudity in the first three series of Being Human means it's no secret he looks good in a natural state, but there's definitely some gasps of surprise at how toned he is now when the shirt first comes off. (Following him on Twitter means I wasn't quite as surprised at the biceps'n'pecs on show - striking a "muscle man" pose in photos has clearly gone past irony and has long since become a reflex reaction any time he sees a camera. I mean, I still love the guy on any number of levels but I don't think even I fancy him quite as much as he fancies himself.) But there's definitely a lot of him to fancy, and being a few inches away from his bare nipples will, let's face it, probably overshadow the play's undoubted strengths in my recollection. And there's quite the nipular perkiness on show. Being able to see someone's nipple poking cheekily through his shirt is hot, but being able to clearly see the areola bulging through as well is, I think, unprecedented.

Ahem. Back in something tenuously connected to sanity, this is a funny, very dark comedy that confirmed to me that being terminally single isn't quite as bad as the alternative.

Sex With A Stranger by Stefan Golaszewski is booking until the 25th of February at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.


  1. Yet another reason I suffer for living on the wrong side of the pond.

    1. If it helps, he may be moving to the US later this year. To LA of course rather than your side of the country, but who knows, he still speaks fondly of his time on Broadway so maybe he'll return there?