Home / Drama / In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play – St James Theatre, London

In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play – St James Theatre, London

Writer: Sarah Ruhl

Director: Laurence Boswell

Reviewer: David Ralf

[rating:3]

IN THE NEXT ROOM or the vibrator play, l-r Jason Hughes, Owen Oakshot and Flora Montgomery (c)Johan Persson (13)The title In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play is a marketing department’s (wet) dream – the coy ‘in the next room’, which refers to the practicing room in the house of Dr Givings, the inventor of the electrical vibrator which he uses to treat ‘hysteria’ in female patients, implies a rich, subtle socio-historical drama, while the alternate or sub- title ‘The Vibrator Play’ is bang on the nose, leaving no doubt as to the subject matter, and hints that there are belly laughs to be had about the 19th Century attitudes to female sexuality, double entendres and slapstick – a good old-fashioned West End comedy of manners.

It is to the credit to director Laurence Boswell that this production manages to deliver aspects of both suggested plays. The auditorium was filled with reverent hush at times where it had felt the laughter might keep coming and coming. Ultimately though, this is a text with an identity crisis, and this very pretty and well-acted production, which opened in the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio in 2012, cannot quite resolve the contradictory notes in an ambitious but uneven text.

Late 19th Century medicine had no concept of the female orgasm – but the pleasurable benefits of Dr Giving’s treatments are noted by his patients. For a play which has a dozen or so orgasms rendered onstage, this stage business is directed with confidence and sensitivity on the upper level of the split stage – each has a different rôle in the drama, and each unique scene ‘in the next room’ is acted with dedication, and strikes a fine balance between scatological humour, and emotional depth.

Meanwhile downstairs, Catherine Givings, the doctor’s wife, rattles around in the big house and is forced to employ a nursemaid for her newborn as she cannot produce milk. She feels desperately neglected by her husband at this time of great emotional upheaval and becomes curious about, and then obsessed by the procedure her husband uses to work such wonders. She drives the action of the play forward, desperate for any shred of conversation as patients come and go. She is given beautiful speeches about the change that the widespread use of electricity might bring, or about the trauma of her motherhood: ‘my baby wanted to eat me, and I couldn’t make myself into food’. But these speeches seem to be from a different play, a different place and a different theatre conversation to the thrust of the medical ‘advancement’. Perhaps the poeticism of one ages is being replaced by the frank physicality of another, and by the end of the play, this reading is almost convincing. But along the way there are missed moments of tenderness, and jokes that miss their mark, as the text desperately tries to give due service to two masters.

Natalie Casey is fantastic as Catherine, with a strong, emotional and mannered performance, and the way she huffs about in her bustling dress makes her seem not just trapped in the house and her marriage, but literally trapped in her own clothes and body. The climax of the play (literally and structurally), in a coda which breaks the picture-box set, and finally has us leave the house confirms Catherine’s rightful place at the centre of the drama – and it is Casey’s performance which carries us through the sea-sickness of veering tones.

Photo: Johan Persson

Runs until 4th January

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