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Print Version

In the Next Room or the vibrator play
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Gaye Poole
Carving in Ice

at Playhouse, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton
From 11 Nov 2011 to 18 Nov 2011

Reviewed by Gail Pittaway, 14 Nov 2011

It's hard to avoid dreadful puns for this unusual comedy by contemporary American writer Sarah Ruhl, when the subject is the use of an electrical vibrator used by doctors in the late nineteenth century to cure women of hysterical illnesses by inducing physical release, a paroxysm; an orgasm, by any other name. Shocking, stimulating, achieving a resounding climax, ultimately satisfying; there I've got some of them out of the way!   

Gaye Poole takes her Carving in Ice company to new levels of performance in this beautifully cast and designed production. The set is brilliantly realised as two adjacent rooms, in a nineteenth century home with fine period furnishings, wooden doors and skirting boards and, everywhere in the domestic room, lighting, electric  lamps; the marvel of Mr. Edison's great invention, electricity. 

Dr Givings (Nick Wilkinson) is a man of science and invention, a doctor who practices the new technology on his mostly female patients in his home surgery. Meanwhile in the living room, his lively and outspoken wife, Catherine (Stephanie Christian) wonders at the meaning of the strange sounds and cries that come through the door from the next room, when he is treating his patients. They are not sounds she has emitted or heard before.

Gradually, as she interacts with the other patients and visitors to their middle class home, it becomes apparent to her that there are possibilities of intimacy that she and her husband have not ever explored.  But is it possible to break through the conventional frigidity and double standards of their times? 

Woven into the story of nineteenth century wives and their sexual experiences is an additional complication for Mrs Givings (and I'm sure all puns are intended on her name) when she finds herself not able to feed her new born baby and is persuaded to hire a wet nurse. Enter Elizabeth in a dignified and sensitive performance by Tendai Sithole. Both a servant and a black woman, whose own child has recently died, she offers a paradox for Catherine as saviour and supplanter in her child's immediate needs.  Now Catherine feels dejected and frustrated on many counts and begins in earnest to investigate her husband's mysterious treatments. 

Nick Wilkinson's deadpan enthusiasm for jabbing the contraption under the discrete surgical sheet at his patients' groins becomes even more amusing when he expounds on the wonders of electrical currents just as they are clearly in orgasm.  The Chattanooga special he produces to relieve his male patient of his tensions is a show stopper.

Apart from these episodes with the special props department and the two spectacular tools for treating patient – one a cross between a microphone and an egg beater, the other a hybrid hand drill attached to a Singer sewing machine – the play has other moments of comedy such as when Mrs Givings befriends her husband's patient, Mrs Daldry. The two discuss the differences in their respective paroxysms, only to be incredulous when told by Elizabeth that these sensations are usual in the marriage bed.

Having established the situation and the premise in a fast moving first half, the second half of the play is spent in unravelling the complexities, much as an Oscar Wilde drawing room comedy unfolds, with some lengthy speeches, but also with more physical comedy.

Natalie Sangster gives an outstanding portrayal of Mrs Daldry, blossoming not from the treatment but from the friendship and feelings it has awakened in her. Her husband is not so well represented by the writer and comes across as a rather inadequate person, but well portrayed by Jason Wade.

Michael Potts as Leo Irving, an aesthete and artist recently returned from Italy, revels in this a gift of a part with its Wildean asides and flamboyant gestures, while Lydia Foley's Annie, the warm and practical nurse, is a small but important role in the surgery and in the awakening of Mrs Daldry.

Above all this is a play about the sexual and emotional emancipation of Mrs Givings and Christian gives an utterly convincing performance of this complex character, with infectious openness and spirit.

The costumes – especially underwear – are important, and much is made of the fussiness of buttons and undergarments as symbols of the many barriers to naturalness between husbands and wives.

In the end the imagery of the natural world outside the rooms breaks through and the play ends outside in snow, beyond either room, in a place where the wife can teach her husband how to love. 
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