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BWW Review: SEX WITH STRANGERS, Hampstead Theatre


This is pure titular titillation - a strategy that backfires with this dated, laboured and distinctly unsexy piece. "Serious" writer Olivia (Emilia Fox) at one point bemoans the fact that her failed first novel was falsely marketed as a chick-lit romp, and here too there's a mismatch between erotic promise and Laura Eason's polemical two-hander about the inner workings of the publishing industry.

A convenient blizzard traps Olivia, now a teacher, in a remote Michigan B&B with bad-boy blogger Ethan (Theo James), who found fame by bedding strangers and luridly chronicling - and embellishing - the encounters. Olivia is initially kept ignorant of his more repugnant antics by another plot convenience: they're in a technological black spot. With no Wi-Fi, no TV and no other company, what to do but continue Ethan's grand tradition?

Eason circles around some interesting ideas, like the intimacy between writer and reader. When Ethan reads Olivia's new novel without her permission, it's a violating act - she's more vulnerable in that moment than during their hook-ups. Art is a key facet of her identity, just as Ethan chafes at being defined by a (non-pornographic, he insists) tell-all and an extreme online persona, and so wants to redefine himself via an app championing new writers and a more serious literary work.

Yet for a play about writing, the form is drearily pedestrian, lacking in poetry, bereft of subtext and rarely digging deep enough. Ethan and Olivia's interminable conversations feel more like prescribed, schematic exchanges in an academic seminar than candid sparring - and certainly not the kind that acts as foreplay. It doesn't help that director Peter DuBois elaborately choreographs each erotic encounter as if prepping for Strictly Come Dancing, killing them of any spontaneity.

There's the odd spark of contemporary resonance in Eason's 2011 play - whether designated "experts" still confer legitimacy in the digital age, the difficulty of forming new relationships or growing as a person when your past is forever preserved online - but too many out-of-touch false binaries.

Thirty-eight-year-old Olivia's complete retreat from the modern world is simply unbelievable, and even if she shuns social media and apparently most of the internet, she would surely have learned of Ethan's antics via a disapproving thinkpiece (or six). Likewise, the approach espoused by twentysomething Ethan is nowhere close to revolutionary, and Eason seems convinced that one can only be an extroverted, online, populist sell-out or a reclusive, print-worshipping, genius nobody - there is no middle ground.

The second half ventures into darker territory, with the suggestion that one may be using the other for professional purposes, but chickens out with a cheesy conclusion (ironies abound, as the pair discuss whether Olivia's book will likewise opt for a cosy commercial ending). The stakes are nowhere near high enough to sustain the drama - the greatest dilemmas are which publishing deal to accept for an excessively lauded work and whether the movie adaptation will capture its essence.

Fox's performance is hamstrung by the effort to adopt an American accent ("New York Times bestseller list" defeats her and is, unfortunately, oft-repeated). Her artificial, occasionally squawking drawl slows what might be snappy repartee, and Eason's blunt statements become necessary to track an otherwise vague emotional journey. Lamentably, there's little chemistry with her co-star.

However, James - best known for the Divergent film series - proves a thrilling stage actor. He has a restless, live-wire energy, intelligent delivery in both the comic and dramatic sections, and fills in some of the glaring blanks of Eason's script when it comes to the question of whether Ethan is a provocateur harnessing noxious, misogynistic lad culture, or is actually a product of it. His appearance naked but for a strategically placed novel will satisfy those buying tickets for eye candy purposes, but in fact James's performance is the one element here that's more than skin-deep.

Jonathan Fensom supplies an artfully bucolic B&B and dreamy bibliophile apartment for Olivia, though both are more like Hollywood film sets than believable places. It's symptomatic of the fatal artificiality in a piece that professes to search for the real thing.

Sex with Strangers at Hampstead Theatre until 4 March

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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