Here’s a shocker – a new play, that isn’t trying to shock! Even better still, Stefan Golaszewski’s Sex with a Stranger is about a trio of twentysomethings, who – for once - aren’t royally screwed up. They’re not even on drugs! And, in a final shock revelation, this slow-building comedy features two TV actors, Jaime Winstone and Russell Tovey, who seem completely at home in the theatre.
Like the play itself, Winston and Tovey are understated and all the more powerful for this. Tovey plays Adam - a man stuck in a depressingly dull relationship, who hooks up with Grace (Jaime Winstone) on a rare night out. Their’s is not exactly a meeting of minds. They chat about Homebase. A lot. It’s not even a meeting of lips; when they kiss, it’s as if Tovey is trying to suck a massive bottle of milk, just out of reach. It isn’t exactly sexy but, in its slobbery fervour, it is realistic.
These absurdly amusing kisses set the the tone for a play that might explore romance but is resolutely unromantic. Director Philip Breen does a great job of keeping the ‘romantic’ encounters messy and gloss-free. Throughout much of their fumbling flirtations, Tovey and Winstone’s characters look like they long to be elsewhere. Tovey’s eyes dart about anxiously, constantly searching for something or someone else. Grace’s screeching laughter is far from a thing of a joy. And, even when the two kiss, it feels like they’re grappling about for a connection they cannot find.
These spit drenched and awkward encounters are not all that different from the scenes between Adam and his girlfriend, Ruth. The only difference is that the conversations between Adam and Ruth do not tingle with the promise of sex. They barely even offer the hope of a hug. Naomi Sheldon, as grey and goggle-eyed girlfriend Ruth, looks like Bambi caught in the headlights. One wishes someone would put her out of her misery. The same goes for Adam, who visibly pales in the company of his sensible but spark-free girlfriend.
It all sounds a bit depressing but Golaszewski, whose TV work has obviously taught him a lot about tight structuring, handles the heavy stuff lightly. The doubt and depression build slowly, in the gaps between the clever punchlines. In fact, the sadder moments are often trapped inside the jokes themselves. During an early date, Ruth breathlessly declares her excitement at their similar tastes; ‘You like olives, that’s good!’ It’s a slight line but it still captures the gulf between these two people, as Ruth quietly plans for a future we now know has been obliterated for good.