Monday 6 February 2017

Theatre review: Sex With Strangers

A writer writing about writing in Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers, which opens at a remote Michigan cabin that's used as a writers' retreat. It's so remote, in fact, that a snowstorm has kept most of the participants away, and only two people have shown up: Olivia (Emilia Fox) wrote a well-received novel a few years back, but bad marketing saw it flop and she now works as a teacher, writing only as a hobby. Ethan (Theo James) is ten years younger but already much more successful - a blog he wrote about his one-night stands turned into two hit books, and he's now writing the movie adaptation, but he hopes once that's done he can branch out into more literary writing. A mutual friend introduced him to Olivia's novel and he became a fan, braving the weather to meet her and find out more about the woman behind the words.

Despite her reservations about the way he made his name, she soon ends up sleeping with him, and when they finally get away from the retreat they even attempt to have a relationship.

Writing about writing can bring to life an infectious love of books, or it can just be indulgent, and while Sex With Strangers tries hard for the former - the pair are constantly getting excited about each other's and other people's work - it keeps landing firmly in the latter. The play's just about held together by a meandering plot that seems to be building up to a climax but keeps sputtering out limply.

It's not helped by Peter DuBois' production, which never really builds up steam, especially thanks to Jonathan Fensom's too-detailed set design: The amount of time it takes to take down and rebuild the set (act 2 moves from the cabin to Olivia's apartment) means the interval drags out to half an hour, losing any momentum it might actually have managed. Two and a half hours is a long time for a two-hander and while Fox and James are good at the more comic exchanges between their characters, they never convince that there's any kind of spark between them. It may be this that makes the play feel as if it's building to some kind of dark twist then disappointing when it doesn't materialise.

But really it's how quickly it becomes apparent the play's going nowhere, that makes the time tick by slowly. And while it might be a common trope, Theo James making a surprise entrance naked with only a book to cover his modesty is the sort of thing you'd expect to get some kind of reaction, whether it's a laugh or a murmur of appreciation. The fact that it was greeted with silence says a lot about the audience's involvement or lack of it.

Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason is booking until the 4th of March at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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