Matilda Award Nominated Sex With Strangers is back for a sizzling return season.
Olivia is a woman d’un certain âge who retreats to a quiet bed and breakfast to work on her second novel. Her first novel didn’t enjoy tremendous popularity, but Olivia strives for quality over mass appeal. Surrounded by her favourite books, and armed with a bottle of wine, Olivia settles in for her first night of work, but her tranquil writing cocoon is unraveled by a stranger bursting in from the storm. Enter Ethan. Ethan is a late 20-something blogger who has achieved infamy with his blog about his crusade to sleep with at least one new woman every week. He turned this blog into a New York Times best seller, but he craves legitimacy as he says, ‘I think I have a meaningful contribution to the literary cannon in me’, and has come to the B&B to focus on it. He’s brash, but charming, and after a little stilted small talk, some wine and banter, Ethan reveals a deeper side, and the unlikely pair fall into bed together. Multiple times. What ensues is a fascinating study in psychology. There are many layers to this play; as it raises questions and opens itself to audience interpretation.
As I watched Olivia and Ethan challenge each other to discover what is missing in their lives, I was swept up in the moment. I wanted them to make it as a couple. It was easy to fall for Ethan’s charm, his infectious energy, and love of life. Like Olivia, I wanted Ethan to be the reformed character he purports to be, and like Olivia I lived in fear that he would prove himself to be the shallow, uncaring person he has to been to all the women he has written about in his blog.
This is an extremely challenging piece of theatre to execute. If Ethan is too glib and two-dimensional, then an audience will be left wondering ‘Why do we care? What does Olivia see in him?’ If, on the other hand, Ethan is too likeable, if the audience is too firmly on his side, then the play becomes a vehicle for misogyny. It expects Olivia to apologise for her success and ambition, and condones Ethan’s manipulative and deceitful behaviour. Thomas Larkin treads this line with agility. His nuanced performance, brimming with boyish energy, is charismatic and likeable enough to pull you along for the ride, but subtle enough to leave you with the uneasy feeling that you’ve been had.
Veronica Neave is fabulous as the strong, smart, cynical, and passionate Olivia, and together the pair had palpable chemistry. The simple set and lighting design (Troy Armstrong and Jason Glenwright) was extremely effective and left the focus where it should be- on Olivia and Ethan’s relationship.
Astutely directed by Jennifer Flowers, this isn’t a play that you shuck off as you exit the theatre. It sits in your gut and sets you thinking. It gets you thinking about how well you can ever know your partner, the importance of the past to the present moment, our relationship with technology, and the boundaries between public and private life. Yet, like most good theatre, it’s not didactic. It leaves many questions unanswered.
So, go experience Sex With Strangers at the Brisbane Powerhouse until Feb 21, with no strings attached. It’s an intimate, fascinating night at the theatre that will leave you wanting more.