The Theatreguide.London Review
The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play
St James Theatre Winter 2013-2014
This is a sweet little comedy-drama with a fascinating subject and one strikingly original and engaging performance at its centre. It's overloaded with themes and plot lines and doesn't quite hang together, but ignore all the loose ends and you'll find much to enjoy.
A hundred years or so ago, with electricity still a scientific marvel, some doctors treated women's 'hysteria' – that all-purpose label for everything from nerves to general discontent – by applying electric-powered vibrators to their genital areas, producing spasms and occasional invocations of the deity, and the women generally did feel somewhat less discontented afterwards.
(Amazingly, no one saw – or admitted to seeing – anything sexual about this, and when someone finally realised that the women were enjoying the process, it was outlawed.)
We are in the home and next-room office of a doctor who masturbates women for a living (Hey, it's a tough job, but . . .), little appreciating that his own wife is discontent. She and one of his patients realise that they can bypass the doctor and apply the treatment to each other or, indeed, themselves, leading to a host of new and confusing physical and emotional experiences.
Sarah Ruhl's 2009 play isn't all dirty snickering, though there is some of that to it. She has a real sympathy for both the women and the men in their ignorance, seeing them so close to a sexual satisfaction they're hardly aware of and so far from emotional satisfaction they don't know how to reach.
What keeps distracting the play is that it's also about a bunch of other things, none of them really integrated into the main plot or fully resolved on their own.
There's something about women as mothers – one woman can't have children, another has a child but can't nurse or bond with it, another has lost a child, another is a spinster midwife. There's something about race, with a black wet nurse feeding a white baby.
The doctor's wife falls in love with a painter, who falls for the wet nurse, while the female patient and the midwife feel a sexual charge that scares the hell out of them.
The umbrella over all this is a sketch of a culture without the words with which to acknowledge either love or sex, but the pieces are going in too many different directions for us to see them as parts of a whole.
At the centre of the play is Natalie Casey as the doctor's wife, conceived of by the actress as an endearing mix of adolescent romanticism, blinkered ignorance, a vague sense that things ought to be better than they are, and a Yankee practicality that drives her to set out and fix things even when she hasn't the slightest idea of what she's doing.
It's clear that much of this, particularly the no-nonsense roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-on-with-it core, is not inherent in the character as written, and very much Casey's work, along with director Laurence Boswell, and it richly adds to the play's warm humour and emotional texture.
Jason Hughes is quietly droll as the doctor who does not know what he's doing, and Flora Montgomery attractive and sympathetic as the patient 'cured' of her depression by his treatment.
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Review - In The Next Room - St James Theatre 2013