It’s no surprise, then, that this pairing works just as well on stage; Sex with a Stranger is 80 minutes of slow-burn but high-laugh-rate comedy that gets as many laughs from the uncomfortable silences as the gags. Tovey stars in the three-hander along with Jaime Winstone – these two being the strangers in question – and Naomi Sheldon as Adam’s (Tovey) long-suffering and highly-strung girlfriend Ruth.
We only meet Ruth about half way through the play, however, the first 40 minutes or so revealing how Adam and Grace (Winstone) meet on a night out, and head off back to Grace’s flat via a long and rather awkward bus and cab ride filled with circular, gossamer-light conversations about how great the club was, and that living five minutes from Homebase must be ‘handy’.
It may be brand new and, probably, never to be revisited, but it’s actually quite a sweet relationship and it provides the majority of the humour – Winstone is hugely likable and very funny as the down-to-earth, giggly Grace. It’s only when we start to get drip-fed information about Adam’s ‘real’ life back home that things start to turn from amusingly clumsy, to distinctly uneasy.
The first real action we see from Ruth is a good five minutes spent meticulously ironing a shirt – the very shirt, of course, that Adam wears on his night with Grace. It’s an uncomfortably long period of time to watch someone completing a domestic chore (there were stifled laughs in the audience, and one man gave her a brief ironic round of applause when she finished) but that is of course the point. We need to see the care and attention that Ruth has put into ironing the shirt for us to start reassessing how we feel about the affable Adam.
After this scene we’re all set up to be on Ruth’s side, but as we’re taken back through the history of their relationship – from meeting at uni to tortuous discussions about whether to get some new bookshelves – we start to detect a few, shall we say ‘issues’ on Ruth’s behalf that complicate things a little. She’s clingy, paranoid and, to be honest, quite dull, but then dullness is no excuse for infidelity, and she clearly has a lot to be paranoid about.
Ultimately there is no big revelation or showdown, so the ending feels pretty flat, but there’s no doubt that Sex With A Stranger is a beautifully written and impressively acted play in which the little details of genuinely real conversation are the real star.