SEX WITH STRANGERS Hampstead, NW3

THE LITERARY LIFE,  AS SHAGFEST

 

Those still wondering why on earth 42% of women voted for Donald Trump may feel enlightened by the way in which – in this successful American two-hander by Laura Eason – its heroine doesn’t dump a man whose wealth and business success actually depend on a braggart blog about shagging strange women and leaving them lying drunk int heir own vomit; a man to whose lips spring Trumpesque words like “fat dumb loser slut..shut her up, just stick your cock in her mouth” . Strange cattle, we women.

 
But I run ahead of myself. Our tale opens on a snowy night alone in a rented b & b in Michigan, where slender elegant Olivia (Emilia Fox) is mooching around in trackie-bottoms, gazing moodily at a typescript. Stomping in with a reservation comes Ethan,  a handsome, designer-stubbled oaf a few years her junior (Theo James). This  is a writers’ retreat, though not as we know them : over here your  chances are slim  of being  sexily  snowed in with  a buff, gym-honed pretty-thing like these, rather than  some corduroyed balding dishevelled and rumpled grump. Anyway, within minutes Ethan’s whining for wifi  abates, they discover a mutual literary hero and soon have the first of many shags (it’s OK, director Peter Dubois brings down a modest gauze curtain and blackout every time).

 
Olivia, a struggling teacher of writing courses, learns that Ethan is on the NYT bestseller list with a blog-based book about the girls he has pulled, with details. He, meanwhile, admires her upmarket my-inner-life novel , and actually scores his first grapple by quoting a line which, in the style of such wailing me-books, is “I feel like a ruined city”.

 
He, of course, is more like a profitable  drive-thru MacDonalds; but he wants to get into “significant” books, while she (burningly ambitious  beneath the showy self-doubt) wants success, and Serious Readers. She has been cruelly  missold as chick-lit with naff covers (it happens, this I know too well). So with his marketing savvy, agent connections and online buzz creation on one side, and her fine- writing cred in return, they need one another. Their transaction, not too honestly understood by themselves, shapes the rest of the play in the snow cabin and her apartment.

 

Both Fox and James are, I should say, are superbly credible in their roles: if there is a difficulty it is that the script gives them little scope to be likeable. If one wants the romance to bloom in the end (no spoilers) it is mainly, in the Irish phrase “so they don’t spoil two houses”. Luckily the performances are sharp enough to win a good few laughs at the pretensions and dishonesties, and especially at the gulf between mini-generations: his twentysomething Macbook Air next to her clunky old laptop.

 

Some interesting 21c themes wander through and are not developed: her ridiculous millennialist conviction that if you don’t make it early you never will, and also her terror of being trolled:  she wails that she can’t work out how to be “hard enough” to take mean remarks yet soft enough to retain her prized sensitivity.   His urging her to courage is genuinely interesting, but unexplored. Nor at any point, does the author question the no-strings anonymous hookup culture to which they both subscribe, or admit how new it is, culturally.  That would be altogether too daring for a hip writer.

 

 

It’s entertaining enough, though, and the Jonathan Fensom sets conventional but mood-perfect. Her chic apartment has a steel girder down the middle exactly like a fireman’s pole: I kept wanting the ghost of George Eliot (unpublished till over 40, wrote Middlemarch at 52) to slide down and urge Olivia to pull herself together , get some sensible shoes and think about someone else for a change.

 
Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com

rating three    3 Meece Rating

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