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IN THE NEXT ROOM or the vibrator play

Published 22 November 2013

Not a day will go by between now and 4 January when the St James theatre’s Twitter feed won’t be populated with puns from audience members about Sarah Ruhl’s UK Theatre Award-winning play.

Indeed the urge to open a thesaurus and copy down every synonym for the word ‘stimulating’ in order to describe the 19th century-set comedy is almost as great as the insatiable urge to return for a second round of treatment experienced by Dr Givings’ patient.

The patient in question, Sabrina Daldry, is suffering from hysteria, a condition that the doctor believes he can cure with continued courses of electric therapy. Continued, I might add, less because of the patient’s medical needs and more because of her reluctance to relinquish the three minute sessions with Dr Givings and his equally generous device.

Simon Kenny’s two-storey set cleverly separates the Givings family’s living quarters from The Next Room, the ‘operating theatre’ in which the doctor tends to his patients. While his wife Catherine is shut off from the physician’s scientific experiments, exposed only to the audible mutterings and groans through his wooden surgery door, the audience is exposed to both scenes simultaneously, often with amusing results.

Jason Hughes is comically abrupt as the doctor at the centre of the piece, his lack of emotion enabling affectionate gestures towards his wife to be delivered with considerably less feeling than that provided by his prized instrument, while Flora Montgomery, as his satisfied customer, exudes a cool comic serenity, gliding across the stage in a state of complete relaxation following her increasingly regular visits.

Natalie Casey is on top form as Catherine, whose lines are devoid of emotion, intonation and punctuation, adorning the ends of them with an abrupt snigger that makes her both an endearing and humorous figure.

Just when you thought the cast couldn’t create more comedy, in walks Edward Bennett’s Leo Irving, who also seeks help from Dr Givings and his good vibrations. Bringing with him a comic campness to rival David Walliams’ recent turn as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he bestows every sentence with flowery metaphors and poetic language to paint the ultimate stereotype of an artist who is ‘married to his solitude’.

Laurence Boswell, who originally directed the production at the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio, hits the spot with his polished direction, effectively judging the delicate balance of poignancy and humour. After all, the play – though side-splittingly funny at times – isn’t merely a hysterical romp about a vibrator, it also exposes the constraints of a society factually uneducated and emotionally reserved about sexual matters, and the tragedy of Madeline Appiah’s Elizabeth, who donates her dead son’s milk to the Givings’ baby, and Casey’s Catherine, whose existence is shrouded with an unbearable loneliness and feeling of inadequacy.

That said, there is certainly a lot to laugh about in this clever and witty play, and Boswell and his cast do a great job at capturing the humour right up to the production’s chilling… err… climax.

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