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A CurtainUp London Review
Sex with Strangers
"I don't want to subject myself to a bunch of misspelled strangers' take about my work." — Olivia
Sex with Strangers
Emilia Fox as Olivia and Theo James as Ethan (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
I think the main problem with Laura Eason's play may be its salacious title and the consequent expectations of the audience who have booked to see it. The content is much more about writers and publishers in the shifting sands of how and what people read with the advent of the digital age.

I have friends who are almost self publishing or indeed after finding a publisher to put their work into print, are responsible for securing sales both of book and for Kindle or online download. The big challenge today is less the dead end that was rejection from publishers as there are other publishing options.

In a Bed and Breakfast retreat for writers in Michigan, once published and with that book now out of print, Olivia (Emilia Fox) is working on her second manuscript. Remember American Bed and Breakfasts are much more upmarket than those in the UK, often furnished with antiques, but this place is decidedly retro with fringed lampshades and blanket throws on the chairs.

In the middle of a blizzard, a man arrives. Ethan (Theo James) has driven from Chicago in a snow storm and the owner of the Bed and Breakfast is away, so he and Olivia make their awkward introductions. She is shy and reticent, her confidence altered by the lukewarm reception of her first book some years before. Ethan on the other hand is out there, in his twenties and his blog "Sex with Strangers" came about after he was challenged to meet women, not online, but in the old fashioned way in bars and cafes and to write about 52 sexual encounters in a year. He describes his writing that year "as the recollections of a certified arsehole." Details of his blog do not endear him to us but the hits on his site run into millions and he has subsequently published a book online which has been sold to Hollywood to make a movie.

Although I was not convinced by the sexual attraction between self effacing Olivia and this Don Juan, Ethan convinces her that he has sought her out because he so loved her writing and the icing on the cake for her is his ability to quote from her book. Do we believe it as she kisses him passionately? Not really but this is the start of an elaborate plan on his part to publish her work online as well as getting her to fall for him. Each scene change results in the pair partially undressing and coupling before a screen descends and the lights go down leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Act Two sees them at Olivia's apartment as Theo comes back from Los Angeles where he is working on his movie. Their experiences of agents and publishing will dominate this act but it would be unfair to give any more detail.

Theo James is well cast as a handsome man who finds sexual conquest easy and non committal easier but somehow, for me, Emilia Fox's delicate flower performance doesn't tally with that of a sexual risk taker. With a two handed play we have no opportunity to see how these two react with others and the play felt a bit thin to me but it may be that Emilia Fox was not well chosen in the casting.

However, the sexual scenes apart, there is something to be taken from this play about the changing nature of publishing as authors now do not have to wait for the envelopes of rejection as their manuscript is returned, read but unwanted, but can look at various ways of self publishing, although ultimately they all will usually aim at seeing their book in hardcover! On a different note the playwright has maybe taken artistic licence with Olivia's out of print book no longer being subject to the publisher's copyright but maybe that is permitted dramatically or maybe Ethan does not abide by the rules.

For Simon Saltzman's review in New York go here.

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Sex with Strangers
by Laura Eason
Directed by Peter Dubois
Starring: Emilia Fox, Theo James
Design: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting Design: Natasha Chivers
Sound Design: Max Pappenheim
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval minutes
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 4th March 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th February 2017 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU
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