Sex with a Stranger
While the BAC revisits Homer’s The Odyssey care of Paper Cinema, Trafalgar Studios’ latest production also tells the story of an epic journey. But instead of gods and monsters, Adam (Russell Tovey) and Grace (Jaime Winstone) must contend with sub-zero temperatures, night buses, taxis and their utter mismatch on the seemingly endless trek from the nightclub where they have hooked up to Grace’s bedroom. Meanwhile, an oblivious Ruth (Naomi Sheldon) waits like a Sainsbury-shopping Penelope for her straying boyfriend to come home.
Writer Stefan Golaszewski demonstrates the same painfully acute grasp of the nonsense we spout on a habitual basis as he did in recent sitcom Him & Her. Adam’s and Grace’s conversation is pockmarked with misunderstandings and banalities as they try in vain to impress each other and make something more of their initial dance-floor meeting and imminent fumble. The pair talks in clichés that are hilariously and depressingly spot-on in their absurdity. References to Homebase and the vagaries of ghds are the patina of a language flattened of meaning, existing purely to fill up the silence in a world where there is nothing new left to say.
Director Phillip Breen plays up this sense of disconnect by regularly plunging Tovey, Winstone and Sheldon into darkness – sometimes mid-sentence – and then repositioning them around the stage, to indicate the passing of time when the lights go up. These staccato and distinctly filmic jump-cuts, which reflect the sitcom set-up hardwired into the show’s DNA, aren’t entirely successful on stage. When it works, the effect can be as funny as someone caught mid-expression in a photo they weren’t expecting. But more often than not, the dim outline of the cast hurrying between their marks just takes us out of the story.
Nevertheless, Tovey and Winstone are achingly funny, brilliantly conveying their characters’ complete lack of sexual chemistry as they slobber over each other in a cringing and increasingly desperate imitation of attraction. Loveable bafflement is something Tovey does well, and here is no exception; his voice breaking into a frustrated squeak as he tries to salvage something from an ill-fated situation. Meanwhile, a mini-skirted Winstone’s enjoyable mix of alcohol-fortified coquettishness, defensiveness and occasional blank incomprehension means we miss her when the spotlight turns to Adam and Ruth.
Via a fragmentary sequence of flashbacks we learn that what has landed Adam on a night bus to somewhere near Homebase is, in part, his inability to cope with moving in with his violinist girlfriend, who he has been with since university. As the cheekily long scene of Ruth ironing Adam’s shirt in silence makes clear, their relationship has been subsumed by monotony and routine; dominated by strained conversations about shelving, what should go in a salad and whether Adam’s best friend, Robert, is a nice guy or not. They may as well be strangers for the distance that has grown between them.
A wide-eyed and plaintive Sheldon is affecting as Ruth; her character speaking tentatively to Adam as if afraid that everything will shatter if she says what’s on her mind. But in spite of Sheldon’s best efforts, the part feels underwritten, more like a collection of middle-class tics than a fully-rounded person. And as we are encouraged to laugh at her foibles and roll our eyes as she nags Adam about shaving, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the play is actively pushing you to sympathise Adam, ultimately the least likeable and most manipulative character. Even Grace, fun as she is, rarely ventures out of a certain kind of ‘everywoman’ territory and into a three-dimensional landscape.
This is a story ostensibly told from several perspectives, but which doesn’t always feel like it. And a single, nastily foul-mouthed outburst from Adam when Ruth accuses him of looking at another woman isn’t enough to even the equation – particularly when the production contrives to keep the well-toned Tovey shirtless or in boxers for more scenes than just the obvious. In the end, this witty, well-paced show has a keen ear for the everyday and a fine cast; just don’t be surprised if, occasionally, your laughter leaves a bitter aftertaste.
First published by Exuent