Sex with a Stranger, Trafalgar Studios

Originally written for Spoonfed.

The bold title of Stefan Golaszewski’s new play, while undoubtedly attention grabbing, is slightly misleading. Although this comedy’s short, punchy scenes dance around many of the moments leading up to, informing and following the carnal act of its title, the narrative’s climax (pun intended) is never quite reached.

The central one night stand is between Grace, played with pitch-perfect, endearing awkwardness by Jaime Winstone, and Russell Tovey’s equally endearing but romantically clueless Adam. They meet in a nightclub, an encounter followed by all the usual inexpert groping, interminable late night travel and mandatory kebabs that characterise such liaisons. It is the longest, most toe-curlingly awkward display of foreplay imaginable. As a background to this fumbling, fleeting affair, Adam has left at home his long-term girlfriend Ruth, a piercingly poignant bundle of insecurities in the hands of Naomi Sheldon.

With the same shrewd observation deployed in offbeat comedy Him and Her, writer Golaszewski and director Phillip Breen have zeroed in on an unflinching, almost grubby realism. Dialogue revolves around such humdrum topics as Homebase and salad, while the subtlest facial movement from any one of the unfailingly excellent cast conveys a clutch of instantly recognisable thoughts. In the cosy space of Studio 2 such minutiae achieves maximum effect, although the minimalist, close-up focus on the mundane does threaten to dent the play with its own slightness.

The scenes between Adam and his two different partners are chopped up and intersected; fractured moments from flawed relationships that have been roughly thrown about and then separately, delicately held up to the light. Under Emma Chapman’s bright, often stark lighting, these glimpses into the lives of Adam, Grace and Ruth can feel like snapshots, brief bulb-flash illuminations that fade away as quickly as they were captured. The piece resists togetherness and resolution, but its lack of cohesion is symbolically fitting for a play that distils the lack of connection between individuals.

Looked at through the lens of these diced, jagged scenes, Sex with a Stranger reads as a jarring oxymoron: an act of the greatest intimacy juxtaposed with the most fleeting of human connections. But who out of Grace and Ruth is the greater stranger to Adam? While many aspects of these two contrasting relationships differ dramatically, the most striking moments in both are the awkward, strained silences that garner pained laughs of recognition.

Ultimately, what elevates this from the realm of mere observational humour is its unsettling grain of grim truth. Under the veil of comedy, Golaszewski is dishing up for the audience’s guilty consumption our own inability to communicate and connect. Romance may not quite be dead, but the signs of life are hard to find.

Sex with a Stranger runs at Trafalgar Studios until 25 February.

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