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Review of Sex With Strangers at the Hampstead Theatre

The title is one of those titillating come-ons, and given that the person who pens that eponymous blog that has been turned into a bestseller in the plot of this play is played by the sexy young movie actor Theo James (Divergent), its hardly a surprise that it is already a sell-out hit for Hampstead Theatre. And, as artistic director Edward Hall makes clear in a programme introduction, in the autumn and winter so far the theatre has staged three plays Labyrinth, iHo and Wild Honey with large casts, so to turn now to be doing only two-hander is a neat budget-balancer.

But in fact this is one of those desperately shallow American plays that uses art -- in this case literature -- as a come-on along with the sexual promise to justify its artistic credentials. It follows two writers -- a 28-year-eight year old blogger turned best-selling author called Ethan, who arrives at a country writers' retreat, where he meets the only other resident there, a woman called Olivia who's smarting from the failure of her first book to reach a wider audience.

Of course, given that Ethan's business has been about turning his bedroom prowess, and his seemingly infallible way of bedding any woman he chooses to, into stories for his widely-read blog column, he immediately succeeds in bedding Olivia, too. All of this (very) soft-porn activity is shown in Peter Dubois's all-too-discreet production -- Theo James's Ethan slips out of his tee-shirt and socks regularly to reveal his muscled back and torso, while also removing the underwear of Emilia Fox's Olivia again and again -- as a transparent screen descends and the lighting fades.

All this faux titillation would be phoney enough if it wasn't for the already dated conversation that playwright Laura Easton tries to ignite around their respective literary ambitions, and the challenges of new technologies that Ethan is actively embracing (he's developing an App to publish e-books via) while Olivia still clings onto the desire to hold a physical copy of her work.

Hampstead seem to have a penchant for these feeble plays around literature -- they previously staged the UK premiere of Theresa Rebeck's Seminar in 2014 -- but they at least do it handsomely (there are not one but two lavish sets here), and the actors summon as much integrity and authenticity as they can in the limited circumstances provided by the script.

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