The stage is dressed with a plethora of brown. From brown leather sofas to brown wooden wall cladding, the colour scheme sets an expectation of a warm, cosy, and intimate setting. This expectation is soon confirmed, as we learn that the play is in a writer’s retreat on the edge of Lake Michigan. The catalytic meeting point of Olivia (Emilia Fox) and Ethan (Theo James), who take advantage of their intimate setting.
Sex with Strangers is not merely a play about, well, having sex with strangers! It uses its sexual foundations to explore wider issues about the relationship between humans and technology.
Its protagonists, Olivia and Ethan, are authors from two different generations and two different worlds. Whilst she’s from the realm of reality, of tactile books with pages, he’s from the realm of the virtual, and is a lot more successful for it. Despite being a lot older and a lot more profound, Olivia’s writing has fallen by the wayside after a concoction of bad publishing advice and lack of self-belief. By contrast, Ethan’s blind arrogance, internet popularity, and crass recounts of his misogynistic sexual encounters with inebriated females has placed him on the New York Times best seller list.
The dialogue, between the opposing viewpoints embodied by the plays protagonists, is the main success of the work – particularly as it discusses issues through humorous and serious means. One minute we’re laughing at Ethan’s desperation to get a WiFi signal (a struggle we’re all familiar with), and remark that his Twitter followers will think he’s died. The next, we’re slightly repelled by the exploitative online network he’s a part of.
Despite dreams of becoming a perceptive authorial voice, Ethan is trapped by the image of the online persona he established as a young man, and his imprisonment feels like a warning to all online writers to consider how their current output may affect their future careers. Upon meeting Olivia – alongside convincing her to sleep with him merely 15 minutes into the play – Ethan persuades her to join him in the online publishing market. His downfall, but her path to success. A juxtaposition which allows the play to achieve success as an interesting consideration of human’s relationships with social media, rather than a one-sided criticism of modern internet technology.
Fox and James both deliver astounding, authentic performances. Their onstage chemistry is palpable, and whilst some may argue that their sexual relationship isn’t the focus of the play, it delivers an intriguing (and let’s face it, exciting) frame for what could be a very dry, philosophical discussion.
The combination of Laura Eason’s naturalistic script and the perfomers’ embodied performances creates an engaging flow to the work – unfortunately abruptly stopped at points due to unconsidered black outs and scene transitions. Yet this technical consideration is really the only area in which I can find fault.
Sex with Strangers is not only erotic and humorous as the title may suggest, but an intelligent discussion of a contemporary topic that feels very relevant in a time where – through social media – everyone’s a critic.
Sex with Strangers is running at the Hampstead Theatre until Saturday 4th March 2017. For more information, click here.