Sex with a Stranger, Trafalgar Studios
Tuesday 7th February 2012
Twentysomething emotional confusion is fertile ground for drama. In this new play, Stefan Golaszewski — writer of the BBC Three sitcom Him & Her and star of BBC Four’s Cowards — explores the situation of a young man who doesn’t really know what he wants. Well, except for lots of sex of course. With lots of different women. Or so it might seem. But does he really?
The plot is as bare as a binge-drinker’s exposed arse. Twentysomething Adam, who works in sales, but has a really good idea for a new website, goes clubbing with his mates. During an evening of drinking and dancing, he manages to pick up Grace, who works in recruitment, and goes back with her to the flat she shares. The journey is a long one and, on the way, they stop to have something to eat. When they arrive at the flat, she struggles to find something alcoholic to drink, and then has trouble making out while the light is on.
The second half of the play is a flashback to earlier in the day. Before he prepares to go out, Adam spends his time with Ruth, the young woman he’s living with. They go to a local supermarket, then they eat a salad, and then they watch some telly. She irons his shirt for the evening (shades of Alison in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger). We see how they met as students, get a glimpse of their domestic routine, and even see an argument which shows how scared she is of him. We already know how Adam’s evening will go, so this is an acutely critical look at male behaviour. Everything he does is seen in a uncharitable light because we have already witnessed him, with his packet of three condoms in his pocket, making a move on Grace. But although his domestic routine with Ruth is as normal as the plastic shopping bags they pick up at the supermarket, there’s nothing to explain his desire for sex with a stranger. Except, of course, that he’s a twentysomething bloke, and that’s what twentysomething blokes do. Having felt the sheer misery of his sexual adventure, it’s clear that he doesn’t really know what he wants.
On one level, this is a comedy of modern manners, with the noisy if a bit hesitant Grace a nice contrast to the quieter and more sensitive Ruth, who’s due to play a violin solo at a public concert the following day. Half the laughs come from the recognisably excruciating sexual and social embarrassments, the other from the light dusting of jokes that the playwright scatters over the skimpy narrative. There’s also humour in the mentions of brand names, clichés and non-starters.
Golaszewski writes with a televisual seductiveness, making eyes at the audience with his accurate observations and brief exchanges — no scene in this 80-minute play lasts much longer than two or three minutes. But the result of this relentless teasing is a bit frustrating: one embarrassing sexual encounter and the day-to-day activities of living together can only go so far. And, in this case, so far is not very far at all.
As a picture of twentysomething life it all bears the smack of reality, but as a play it quickly becomes detumescent. In this account of “me and my mates”, nothing really seems to be at stake. The evening lacks drama, lacks any ideas to get your teeth into and its psychological insights feel so familiar as to be banal. Of course, the idea of communication as a minefield of misunderstanding is a fertile field, but it has been crossed many times before.
Phillip Breen’s workmanlike production has a bare, dark stage, and uses minimal props to help propel events forward. It has an exciting soundtrack, and a crack cast. As Adam, Russell Tovey (a regular of Him & Her as well as of Gavin & Stacey and Being Human) starts off as a man with an almost total lack of gorm, and slowly turns into a more devious individual. Jaime Winstone, whose film appearances include Made in Dagenham, plays Grace with a nice range of giggles, guffaws and grunts as her anxiety gradually grows. As Ruth, Naomi Sheldon sadly clings to her man, and to her dignity, as the cracks in her relationship widen. But despite these convincing performances, the play is all tease and no action.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk