Review: Sex With Strangers (Hampstead Theatre)

Emilia Fox and Theo James don’t have the chemistry for Laura Eason’s play

She’s a brilliant novelist; after her first book got badly marketed as chic-lit, she’s turned her back on success, scared of putting work out there. He’s a brilliant sex blogger; his candid, crude lad-lit about one-night stands is bestselling, but he harbours more serious literary ambitions. She’s 38; he’s 28. She’s spiky and defensive; he’s all charm. They meet at a writer’s retreat. There’s a blizzard outside. The WiFi’s down.

No prizes for guessing what happens next – clue’s in the title, after all. Laura Eason’s play was a hit in the US, and here stars Emilia Fox as the brittle Olivia, and Theo James, of the Divergent films, as Ethan. A gorgeous pair, yet their chemistry fails to crackle in early scenes. They approach each other as if trying to find a ripe avocado at the supermarket rather than with rampant lust, and director Peter DuBois really needs to cut maybe, ooh, five of the times James lifts Fox into the air like a doll. He’s strong, we get it. Meanwhile Fox, although she nicely pairs elegance with volatility, often appears to be concentrating so hard on a squeaky, shrill American accent that finding the "truth" of the lines – as they say – seems to go out the window.

If Olivia starts chillier than a snowstorm, soon enough she’s thawed by the warm, easy appeal of Ethan. James is really excellent in the role, finding the laughs, radiating kindly charisma yet able to switch in a second to another persona: that of the frat-boy douchebag who discards women like used condoms.

Between the sex scenes – which end almost every scene, presumably to get as much mileage as possible out of James’ Hollywood-hot bod – the couple talk, very earnestly, about books and writing. Eason gets smart laughs out of the generation gap between the luddite and the tech whizz, but listening to chat about writing you’ve not read is not exactly thrilling. And it doesn’t always ring true – although perhaps that’s just a gap in British and American sensibilities. We might be happy to shag strangers, but we’d cringe at sharing our deepest insecurities or gushing so fulsomely over the work of someone we’d just met…

Eason’s play is at its most interesting when she’s hinting at something more complicated: that these two might simply be using each other, Olivia taking advantage of Ethan’s social media reach to relaunch her career, Ethan after a slice of her credibility. There’s a much darker version of the play to be done, where the first half is mostly faked, a nasty satire on the literary industry and the modern phenomenon of self-promotion. But in DuBois’ production, the main note is romance.

To be fair, it feels like Eason herself stepped away from a more cynical version: the structure of the play seems to suggest a whopping twist after the interval, which never comes.

The design serves the play, and Jonathan Fensom has a spot-on eye for detail. The first half takes place in a suitably hygge B&B, all wooden walls, soft throws, Navajo rugs and wood-burning stoves, while the second is in a chic apartment lined with books, allowing Olivia to riff on our need for the analogue – books, records and photo albums we can hold in our hands. Sadly Sex with Strangers doesn't provide that much to hold on to.

Sex with Strangers runs at Hampstead Theatre until 4 March.