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The Theatreguide.London Review

Sex With Strangers
Hampstead Theatre  January-March 2017

This 2011 American play touches on topics ranging from overpowering sexual desire to the differences between print and online publishing. 

Unfortunately too little of what it has to say about any of them is either original or interesting, and neither playwright nor director offers much help to two admirably hard-working actors in trying to give it some life or reality. 

Olivia (Emilia Fox) and Ethan (Theo James) meet-cute, and in the formulaic rom-com sparring we learn that she is a novelist whose first book some years ago received mixed reviews that so inhibited her that she has been reluctant to finish and release her long-delayed second. 

He is an internet celebrity whose blog and subsequent books recounting his monumental sexual exploits in exuberant detail have brought him a degree of fame and fortune though, like the clown dreaming of Hamlet, he really wants to be a serious writer. 

Improbably, he has read her out-of-print novel and is a big fan. Even more improbably, despite being grossed out and offended by the obscenity and misogyny of his memoirs, she finds him sexually irresistible in person, and their first evening together is punctuated by several detours offstage or into blackouts for what we are to understand are passionate and fully satisfying couplings. 

Hey, if they're happy we're happy, though we may have trouble believing any of it. 

But the happiness-threatening plot developments of Act Two have little to add beyond the not-particularly-surprising revelation that love and even lust are not always pure, and each may have been attracted to the other at least in part with an eye to how the connection might benefit their careers. 

Playwright Laura Eason may be trying to do too many things at once for much of it to seem real. The whole print-v-online debate is never really integrated into the plot or characterisations, and remains a string of focus-weakening digressions. 

The old joke about literary cocktail parties, that publishers and agents talk about art while writers talk about money, is turned on its head here, and Eason depends too much on having the two characters discuss My Favourite Books in introducing them. 

For whole sequences in Act One the woman's dialogue seems to consist entirely of repeating the man's last line with a question mark 'My book was a best-seller' 'Your book was a best seller?' - 'In the New York Times' 'In the New York Times?' - and on and on, and the going-off-for-sex moments occur with clockwork predictability. 

Director Peter Dubois offers little help to the actors. Emilia Fox has been guided to play Olivia as so square and fragile that her later cold-blooded careerism doesn't ring true, while Theo James telegraphs untrustworthiness so strongly from the very beginning that we can never really believe his protestations of sincerity. 

A credited dialect coach has given Fox a distractingly artificial manner of speaking, almost as if she had learned her lines phonetically, and director Dubois has pushed both actors too far into soap opera acting, with portentous pauses, meaningful looks and scene-ending tableaux underlined by melodramatic movie music. 

The two performers are attractive and personable, and deserve stronger material and more sensitive direction. But you will have trouble believing or caring about Sex With Strangers.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Sex With Strangers - Hampstead Theatre 2017

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