Friday, 22 November 2013

Theatre review: In The Next Room or the vibrator play

The word "hysteria" famously originates from ystera meaning womb, because it was assumed to be a uniquely female condition. Hence the unlikely connection between 19th century medicine and sex toys, as explored in Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room or the vibrator play. A rather nifty split-level set from Simon Kenny gives us the living room of Dr and Mrs Givings, and above it the doctor's surgery where people arrive with various forms of depression and exhaustion. Dr Givings (Jason Hughes) and his nurse Annie (Sarah Woodward) treat the patients' lower, unmentionable areas to release the poisonous womb fluids causing their illness. It would all seem suspiciously like an an orgasm if any of the women had had one before. But Givings is also a big fan of the new-fangled electricity, and is replacing the hands-on method with huge buzzing vibrators - he's even designed a few new models himself.

At the heart of Ruhl's play is the relationship between Givings' wife Catherine (Natalie Casey) and one of his patients, Mrs Daldry (Flora Montgomery.) The former feels like her husband's rejecting her while the latter's finding a whole new lease of life from his treatments - but when the two women become friends they start to investigate what exactly it is that's helping put the colour back in Mrs Daldry's cheeks.


Catherine is a new mother bordering on post-natal depression, producing insufficient milk and worried that the wet-nurse Elizabeth (an emotionally intense Madeline Appiah) is bonding with her daughter better than she is. Casey's performance as the ungainly, socially awkward Catherine is a joy, if a bit too reminiscent of her turn in Abigail's Party. Montgomery balances her out well as the increasingly happy and confident Mrs Daldry, and between them, Appiah and Woodward they present four women at many notably different stages of sexual experience.


There's actually some rather nicely-explored areas for drama here but the potential for comedy suggested by the subject matter is thoroughly mined as well, Laurence Boswell's production maintaining a twinkle in its eye throughout. An extra lease of comic life is brought after the interval by the arrival of Edward Bennett's Leonard, an English artist and one of the doctor's rare male patients. Hughes and Woodward have a lot of fun with Bennett and a large amount of lubricant, but Leonard also represents another avenue for the women to seek a new freedom. (Even without the striped scarf he sometimes sports, Bennett seems to be increasingly turning into Tom Baker, which is ironic given his biggest brush with fame so far.)


In The Next Room or the vibrator play has comedy, drama, accidental lesbitarianism, more orgasms than a When Harry Met Sally fan convention, and even aFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!for the benefit of anyone who's ever wanted to see Warren From Off Of This Life get his cock out. What it lacks is a good editor, two and a half hours being longer than the subject matter can really sustain, and unfortunately the play far outstays its welcome. Like the wife of Leonard's friend, it suffers from not having had a bit of a trim downstairs, which could have turned it into a real little gem - it still reaches a satisfying climax, but could have got to it without quite as much foreplay.

In The Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl is booking until the 4th of Janaury at the St James Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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