If you're currently feeling gloomy, staring down at a date-free Valentine's Day, we reckon there are worse options than booking to see Sex With A Stranger at the Trafalgar Studios this month.
Despite its somewhat crass title ("The theatre? Nice. What are you going to see?"… "Err…"), Sex With A Stranger holds an incredibly sharp mirror up to the relationships of twenty-somethings. While it's certainly not the first play to dwell on these themes, SWAS captures something unique in its unsettling quality, and in the quiet pathos of its female victim. See this, and you might feel pleased you're single.
Stefan Golaszewski's non-linear story opens at a bus stop; Adam's got lucky, persuading Grace to leave a club with him, and the pair are headed bedwards, via the kebab shop. Best-known for BBC3's Him & Her, Golaszewski's dialogue is a delight. Almost every line has been freshly picked from the box marked "mundane", dusted with a sprinkling of fatuous, and, in the mouths of Russell Tovey and Jaime Winstone, made to sound even more inane. Initially, it's hilarious. But you can't help thinking: if this is "getting lucky", it kinda sucks.
Running at just 90 minutes, SWAS zips along: some scenes are over in less than 30 seconds, creating snapshots of a hazily remembered night out perfectly.
So we rewind jerkily through the rest of Adam's day. After the repetitive mirthless giggling and the strained dialogue of the one night stand, it's almost a relief to watch a wordless scene: a second girl, simply ironing a shirt. But the tension in the Trafalgar Studios' tiny second space builds with each silent, resentful(?) movement — it's clearly the shirt Adam's wearing later that evening. And so the life Adam's left to go clubbing with his mates unfolds. And it's one of the most phenomenally stale relationships we've ever seen played out on stage.
Naomi Sheldon's Ruth is an excruciating portrayal of an unhappy girlfriend. Despite occasional sly references to weddings and marriage, she's clearly stopped trusting (and maybe even liking) her idiot boyfriend. Sheldon's vulnerability and unease are breathtaking. And still Golaszewski's script is unrelentingly funny: a moment of quiet supermarket rage ("It clearly says six items. Six! Items!") expressing all the anger Ruth feels about her day/bloke/life in one static, hushed outburst.
All three of the cast are superb, enriching what might sound like a flimsy plot and sparse dialogue with oodles of tell-tale glances, and pin-point accurate mannerisms. And while SWAS is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, the overwhelming sadness underpinning the final betrayal is incredibly intense. Spilling out onto the street afterwards, we had to admit: Sex With A Stranger is incredibly cathartic. (No sniggering at the back - Ed.) Single, dating, attached, married; at least our lives aren't that bad.
Photo by Noel McLaughlin