At the Hampstead Theatre
18th February, 2017
“How do I make myself hard enough to withstand all the bad but stay soft enough to still be the writer I want to be?”
Talented novelist; after her first book got badly marketed as chic-lit, she’s turned her back on success
Manipulative bestselling salacious blogger; his candid, crude lad-lit, harbours more serious literary ambitions.
She’s 38; he’s 28.
She’s spiky and defensive; he’s all charm.
Venue: writer’s retreat.
Conditions: a blizzard outside.
Seasoning: The WiFi’s down
So strung together, Olivia (Emilia Fox), a literary professor in her late thirties, loves the smell of books and has one highly-regarded, little-read book. In contrast, Ethan (Theo James is a New York Times bestselling author thanks to an internet memoir based on his popular sex blog, ‘Sex with Strangers’ but craves literary legitimacy. 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. Anonymity v Exposure.
So as the title suggests, there is no guessing as to what ensues when the two forces meet. Sex scenes follow most arguments feel tired, and, worse, tedious.
Eason’s play is at its most interesting when she’s hinting at something more complicated: that these two might simply be using each other, Olivia taking advantage of Ethan’s social media reach to relaunch her career, Ethan after a slice of her credibility. There’s a much darker version of the play to be done, where the first half is mostly faked, a nasty satire on the literary industry and the modern phenomenon of self-promotion. But her main argument is that the internet allows us to manufacture fake identities at odds with reality. The play seems too glib to pull this off credibly.
Yet Jonathan Fensom’s design serves the production’s objectives well. The first half takes place in a suitably hygge B&B, all wooden walls, soft throws, Navajo rugs and wood-burning stoves, while the second is in a chic apartment lined with books. Sadly, there are awkward abrupt moments when everything stops for unnecessary black outs and scene transitions.
Having savoured 12 years of Emilia Fox as Nikki Alexander in ‘Silent Witness’, I came with high expectations. She didn’t seem comfortable in her role. I was half expecting the proficient and tenacious forensic scientist to reveal her true colours. Theo James delivers a committed performance but with a poorly written script. Eason’s contribution to the Netflix “House of Cards” does her more credit.
Sex with Strangers never delivers more than the risqué title delivers.