IN THE NEXT ROOM or the vibrator play:
Review by Natalie York.
From the promotional image I assumed that “In the Next Room”, inventively subtitled “The Vibrator Play”, might be a little raunchy. I was expecting a rollocking Victorian farce full of corsets, naughty vicars and steam powered sex toys. What I wasn’t expecting was a deeply sad but gently funny drama that dealt with an apparently ridiculous subject in an utterly believable and surprisingly domestic way.
We see Doctor Givings, a 19th century practitioner treating women for “hysteria” with his new-fangled electrical “machine” (no steam power here…). The young doctor firmly believes in the medical value of this treatment to pacify the bored and frustrated housewives marched in by their husbands who don’t understand that the cramped and confined image of Victorian womanhood might not suit everyone. As we watch Dr Givings treat his patients in the upper surgery we also see his wife Catherine’s life unfold in the sitting room below. Crippled by her inability to breastfeed her daughter she would like to fulfill her role as wife and mother but feels rejected and sidelined in both positions as her baby becomes increasingly attached to the wet nurse and her husband worries more over the lives of his “patients” than his wife.
Natalie Casey is the absolute highlight of the show as Catherine, all nervous energy and false cheeriness. Her bubbly personality is always close to spilling over, displaying a deep, deep loneliness as she watches people come and go from the house but never venturing out herself. Edward Bennett also stands out as one of these visitors, one of the good doctor’s few male patients, suffering from a feminine hysteria understandable since after all, he is an artist! His apparently bohemian outlook seems at first to offer an alternative image of masculinity to the women in the play but ultimately, in his way, he is just as cowardly and closed minded as the others.
That’s not to say that the men of the play are villains, writer Sarah Ruhl is careful to present both genders just as products of their time, the men are just as scared and ignorant about sex and sexuality as the women. This sense of general befuddlement lends the more explicit scenes, and they do get pretty explicit, an air of novelty and comedy that goes straight past eroticism into near-tragic absurdity. This becomes almost chilling when we realize that the notion of women experiencing anything other than pain during sex is utterly alien to almost everyone on stage.
Ultimately this was an incredibly interesting and engaging night out. I was expecting a naughty, funny look at Victorian sexual prurience but in reality this play is much, much more than its erotic subject suggests. What is really being explored here is not sexuality whether male or female but the importance of education, honesty and openness and the corrosive damage of ignorance and fear.
In the Next Room is showing at St. James Theatre until 4th January with performances from Monday to Saturday evening and matinees on Tuesday and Saturday. Tickets are priced from £15 to £50. For more information and to book please check the St. James Theatre Website
ST. JAMES THEATRE
12 Palace Street
T. 0844 264 2140