‘In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom.

by October 25, 2018

‘In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)’ is a highly entertaining adult comedy / drama, written by American playwright Sarah Ruhl when she was still in her thirties. She was inspired by Rachel Maines’ handbook, ‘The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria*, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction’. Originally, Ruhl was a poet, but whilst studying post-grad English at Oxford was advised to try playwriting.

*The term ‘hysteria’ comes from the Greek word ‘hystera’ meaning uterus; and was once a medical term linked to the fluid retention due to the monthly hormone changes in a woman – not madness.

This risqué play World Premiered in California in 2009; and in Australia it was first presented in Sydney, followed by Melbourne, in 2011. It was hugely successful, being nominated for three 2010 Tony Awards, and several Green Room Awards, including Best Director, Best Female Actor (starring Jacqueline McKenzie), and Best Production.

It is now being presented by the Black Swan State Theatre Company, in the Heath Ledger Theatre in the State Theatre Centre of WA, Northbridge.

The curtain rises on this two and a half hour performance each Tuesday at 6.30 pm, Wednesday (6.30), Thursday (7.30), Friday (7.30), and Saturday evening at 7.30, until Saturday 3rd November. The final night, Sunday 4th begins at 5.00 pm. There are Saturday matinées at 2.00 pm on 27th October and 3rd November.

There is captioning on 31st October.

 

The Scene: 1880, fifteen years after the American Civil War, and the economy is picking up again.

The play takes place in a plush Victorian home in a prosperous spa town outside New York City. It is the home and private surgery of Dr and Mrs Givings.

The set: Alicia Clements’ set is divided into two rooms, a parlour, and a doctor’s surgery. The front half of the stage is a large lounge room with musk pink walls, an Axminster carpet, and a short staircase with a wrought iron stair railing. There is an antique, three-seater bench settee, a marble fireplace, and an upright piano. A cut out in the rear wall (at 120 cms off the floor) shows the ‘next room’ on a higher level. The walls are pine needle green with lime woodwork. On one wall of this surgery is a sink. In the centre of the room is an adjustable, wooden examination couch. On the rear wall is a magnificent oak dresser. It is the dawn of the age of electricity, and so the stand lamps, and ceiling fittings have antique glass bowl shades.

There is a very special, unexpected set effect. Set construction was by Ben Green, and scenic artist Marek Syzler.

Lighting Designer, Lucy Birkinshaw has perfectly captured the low lighting level and warm glow of the low wattage incandescent lamps. In one scene, she used a very powerful blue-white lamp, which brought the desired belly laugh.

Composer Ash Gibson Greig opened the play with a deep, rich, delicious cello and piano piece. Then, as Sound Designer, with his convincing use of a synthesiser Ash has created several unusual sound effects, namely the surgical instruments.

The play was stage managed by Georgia Landré-Ord and her assistant Georgia Smith.

 

        It is 1880, and electricity is still in its infancy. The warmth of an incandescent lamp has replaced the white glow of the gas mantle. It was soon discovered there were many other possible uses for electricity – such as a massaging vibrator.

        Catherine Givings (Rebecca Davis) may be wise and modern in her outlook, but she is a little depressed with her inability to breast feed her baby, and so Catherine decides to find a wet nurse. Her husband, Dr Givings (Stuart Halusz) is a GP and inventor and is presently in the ‘next room’ – his surgery -developing an appliance to relieve ‘hysteria’.

       The Givings discover Elizabeth (Tariro Mavondo), a mother who has tragically just lost her baby and is willing to act as their wet nurse. Like many post-natal mothers, Mrs Givings examines her love, intimacy, and marriage with her unemotional husband.

       One day a new, delicate, and fretful patient, Mrs Sabrina Daldry (Jo Morris) arrives for her initial examination. Dr Givings’ assistant, midwife Annie (Alison van Reeken) takes Mr Daldry (Kingsley Judd) and his hypersensitive wife, Sabrina into the next room to discuss her delicate problem.

      Sabrina then goes into the living room where Catherine allows her to hold the baby. Meanwhile, the doctor advises Mr. Daldry that Sabrina has ‘hysteria’ and it needs a series of treatments. When Mr. Daldry leaves the surgery, Sabrina reluctantly hands the baby back to Catherine, and goes into the surgery, leaving Mr. Daldry and Catherine to go for a stroll around the grounds. They are caught in the rain, but this new wet experience for Catherine leaves her ‘excited’.

        Before leaving Sabrina in Annie’s care, Dr Givings explains his new vibrator treatment, and how it will bring on a ‘paroxysm’.

      The doorbell rings; it is a handsome young artist, Leo Irving (Tom Stokes) who has arrived to discuss his ‘problems’ with the doctor. His arrival throws the whole household into disarray.

 

When one unfortunate actor damaged her leg, there was a minor cast reshuffle and Alison van Reeken was recruited at short notice.

The costume designer, Alicia Clements, will have had a field day producing the large range of exquisite, rich, satin costumes of the era, and all of the strange linen underwear! Alicia’s student on secondment was Isabella Donatelli, who worked with the skilled team of costume builders, Jenny Edwards, Nicole Marrington, and Sarah Forbes. Wardrobe assistant and dresser, Julia Rotherford had several fast costume changes to handle.

Thankfully, the vocal coach, Luzita Fereday, has everyone speaking with the same subtle hint of a New York accent.

Admired director, Jeffrey Jay Fowler is in great demand at the moment; with another play directed by him going up at Curtin Hayman Theatre in a few days. Jeffrey Jay has conquered this statement of Victorian life perfectly; especially with his brilliant approach to the comedy. The humour was presented quite delicately, and in the case of the doctor, with a cool, stiff upper lip. The magnificent cast won every member of the audience by downplaying the humour and emotion. Subtle stares or facial twitches told the story perfectly. In the production that I saw several years ago, it was funny, but the wit was over delivered. Great direction by Mr Fowler – in this play, even a wife will refer to her husband as ‘Mr ….’.

The three main characters were very different; the doctor was boringly dedicated to science, his wife loving but unfulfilled, and Mrs Daldry frustrated, bored and yet an exuberant time bomb. Wonderful performances, many congratulations.

The play is a historical, social statement; as it examines the prudish society of the day, puritanism, prissiness, racism, sexuality, status, and the subsequent misery. There are plenty of laughs, but with just the right amount of sadness and tragedy added.

Last night was another first. A man in the front row had a brown paper, Uber takeaway food bag.

In the words of the Beach Boys – ‘Good Vibrations’.

This extremely funny, inoffensively naughty show pulsates with fun and emotion. Funniest show in years.