“What are you up to tonight?”
It is always nice when a play can change your mind about a theatre. The Trafalgar Studios 2 has never been one of my favourite venues, its awkward shape and uncomfortable seating have often proved a challenge for directors and so my experiences there have definitely been a mixed bag. But Sex with a Stranger, written by Stefan Golaszewski who also pens Him and Her (not that I watch it), has slotted in extremely well with a cracking cast to tell its story of everyday disillusionment with love, sex and life. Adam and Grace hook up in a club and wind their way back to hers for a one night stand via the kebab shop and we get to see their attempts at halting conversation and forming a fumbling connection which are awkwardly, hilariously portrayed. We then skip back in time a day or so to find that Adam has left a girlfriend Ruth at home, but their relationship is no bed of roses and the stranger of the title could sadly apply to either woman.
There’s no denying that this isn’t the most substantial of works, but interestingly enough where I would happily criticise say Ayckbourn for being insubstantial to my mind, the slightness here was much more tolerable because of the connection that I felt with the writing. So much of it feels relatable and recognisable and thus it rang entirely true with me, especially in its depiction of a failing relationship. It probably wasn’t an avocado that caused it, but I’ve had that passive-aggressive moment in the supermarket; that horrible pull between partner and friends who don’t necessarily get on; that nagging sense that neither of you are on the same page. Golaszewski captures all of this so well in its raw awkwardness and uncomfortableness, which is served excellently for once in the close intimacy of the Trafalgar Studios 2 in Phillip Breen’s production.
The flickers of emotion, the briefest hint of expression, the tautness of the silences, nothing is hidden as the actors expose their character, flaws and all, in front of us. Jaime Winstone’s Grace has the bolshiness of a girl about town but great sensitivity too; Russell Tovey’s Adam has a lugubrious charm which belies the dark depths that threaten to bubble over; and Naomi Sheldon’s Ruth is given the most to work with as the woman clinging onto her relationship blindly at all costs, not quite able to keep the panic from her eyes. But such intimacy also works against the staging, the short bursts of scenes punctuated by brief blackouts are effective as a concept but in reality, the shuffling around of the actors is just a bit too evident.
And I think it felt a little imbalanced in its portrayal of the three characters – where it should have been even-handed, Tovey’s Adam was featured a little more heavily and our sympathies directed a little too much towards him and not always deservedly so. He’s been working out considerably and so the scenes with him shirtless and hanging out in his boxers were definitely not difficult on the eye, but their number felt a little excessive (and tailored towards a specific audience…?); and there was the nagging sense that the female characters could have been a little more rounded, a little more fleshed out to remain genuinely persuasive from all angles.
Still it is intriguing stuff, very well suited to this theatre (which is not always the case) and excellently acted. And the connections it wrought within me meant that it was an indisputably unsettling piece of drama for me and that is something very rare indeed.