'In The Next Room or the vibrator play' or 'Could you turn it down a notch or two?'

'In The Next Room or the vibrator play', Sarah Ruhl
St James Theatre, 20th November 2013
Written for BLOUIN ARTINFO UK 

Vibrators, multiple orgasms, anal penetration and a lesbian kiss. It doesn't sound like your typical 19th Century drawing room drama, does it? In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play examines the invention of the vibrator, which was initially used as a medical aid to ‘cure’ women of their hysteria. Laurence's Boswell's production is certainly spirited but it doesn’t quite do justice to this deceptively subtle play.
Sarah Ruhl has stressed in her interviews that, whilst her play is about vibrators, it is fundamentally concerned with human intimacy and the complexities of physical connection. I'm not convinced Ruhl would be satisfied with this broad production, which feels like a jarring combination of Carry OnPride and Prejudice and Sex and the City.
The actors look like figurines, scurrying about Simon Kenny's richly furnished, dollhouse set. Jason Hughes, as the starchy Dr Giving, is as stiff as a you-know-what. He might be helping his patients achieve orgasms (or paroxysms) but he's horribly repressed himself; when he kisses his wife, it looks like he's blindly battling through a thicket of roses.
Natalie Casey plays the doctor's frustrated wife, Catherine Givings, who longs to get in on the 'medical' action. There's something a tad mannered about Casey's delivery and, whilst she gets a lot of laughs, it's not the most truthful performance. Sarah Woodward is horribly underused as the doctor's nurse and is mainly required to ferociously press a pump, her face a picture of earnest concentration as the patients orgasm beside her.
There are some very funny scenes, as the elegantly attired ladies slide under the sheets and loudly – shocked and apologetic - achieve their first orgasm. The Doctor's indifference to the whole procedure amps up the absurdity of these encounters. As Doctor Giving makes small talk and glances at his watch his patients squeal in ecstasy, legs akimbo and eyes popping in disbelief.
But Sarah Ruhl has written more than just an (over) extended joke with her 'vibrator play'. There are a few scenes that touch on something deeper. The play unfolds just as Edison’s light bulbs are taking off, with everyone enthralled by electricity. Catherine Giving (Casey) and her husband's patient, Sabrina (Flora Montgomery), imagine a future dominated by electric lamps rather than candlelight. Catherine imagines the autonomy this new invention might instill: 'Switching on and off. We shall be like Gods!'
There are some painful revelations about a woman’s relationship with her body in the 19th Century. Reflecting on sex with her husband, Sabrina remarks: 'I only feel the darkness – and then the pain.' But these delicate moments flicker hesitantly and are nearly lost completely. In the final scene, the doctor and his wife rush into the snow and look at each other, naked and exposed. It's a beautiful moment but I could barely hear it above all the giggling around me. 

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