Sex with Strangers is Brooklyn-based playwright Laura Eason’s simmering study on romance in the modern age, making its premiere in the UK at the Hampstead Theatre after enjoying blinding success across the US and internationally in over 30 productions.

Emilia Fox plays the beautiful aspiring writer, Olivia, who finds herself snowed into a B&B with the handsome yet unashamedly brash young blogger, Ethan (Theo James). They are seemingly at odds with one another: Olivia, a talented, mature novelist, firmly of an analogue generation, at 38 still waiting for her big break after a failed first publication. Ethan, a digital native, at 28 an online sensation with half a million Twitter followers, preparing a screenplay of his book charting his exploits as an unscrupulous bachelor, “Sex with Strangers”. But any friction quickly translates to sexual tension and more as they crave from the other something they themselves lack.

Both Fox and James are exceptional in this intense two hander that drills to the heart of contemporary anxieties about identity, ego, sex, love, and power in the context of our increasingly digitised culture. Set in only two static locations, it’s all eyes on the pair to maintain the play’s raw realism and intensity, with only their body language and Eason’s witty dialogue to rely on. Directed by Peter DuBois, the actors expertly convey the multi-faceted dimensions of their characters and heated dynamics between them: the subtle transfers of power as the lovers tussle with each other’s and their own egos (as well as a challenging multitude of sex scenes), each compulsively drawn to one another yet determined not to compromise their own aspirations, like magnets that alternately repel and attract.

The script zeroes in on how technology affects human interaction – the couple intensely focused on one another in the literally disconnected B&B while communication in a city apartment is constantly interrupted by phone bleeps or eyes fixed on screens. The piece explores the ability of the online world to amplify and reinvent as well as obscure identity, with Olivia simultaneously repulsed yet intrigued by the digital world Ethan is a product of; she is keen to exploit its opportunities to rekindle her career via an eBook publication under a false avatar, while Ethan is desperate to escape the burden of his online reputation as something of a sex pest/god. The play’s themes are perhaps a reflection of Eason’s own insight into the perils of embracing the digital world as a writer – enabling a connection with readers in a more direct way than ever but also opening up to being trolled, exposed and becoming indulgently narcissistic.

Many contemporary works are concerned with the nexus between the human condition and technology in our contemporary reality; what Eason particularly achieves with Sex with Strangers is to convey the nuance of that impact on the way we interact with one another through this sexually wrought, naturalistic and wholly absorbing production. This is modern-day romantic drama at its best.

★★★★

By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 3rd February 2017.
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Sex with Strangers is at Hampstead Theatre from 27th January until 4th March 2017. Book your tickets here.

Watch the company of Sex with Strangers in rehearsals here:

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