Review: In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by NUTS

Even in the 21st century, female sexuality is considered something of a taboo topic. But NUTS aren’t just talking about the female orgasm: they’re showing it on stage. Directed by Dylan Van Den Berg, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) is the fourth instalment of NUTS’ season celebrating female playwrights. American dramatist Sarah Ruhl’s script is wickedly funny and very clever, operating on multiple levels at once, and this performance encapsulates her depiction of the frustration and loneliness that result from ignorance of female sexual desire.

In the Next Room is a period drama set in late 19th century America, with a sense of Victorian repression that seems to emphasise the play’s modern relevance. The upper classes of New York have discovered electricity in the form of Edison’s newly invented electric light bulb. Meanwhile, the aptly named Dr Givings (Oliver Baudert) has begun working on his own device, the electric vibrator, which he and his nurse-midwife (Lauren Klein) use to induce orgasms in women suffering from hysteria, as this is more effective and quicker than inducing paroxysm by manual manipulation. The doctor’s primary patient, Mrs Daldry (the excellent Molly Jones), quickly gets over her fear of undressing in the doctor’s consulting room and is particularly pleased with the treatment offered to her by Dr Givings, something that her husband (Dean Batten) is unable to give her himself.

In the living room next door, however, Mrs Givings (played with wit and charm by Evie Hall) is desperately unhappy. She has recently given birth to a baby girl but is unable to provide enough milk for the child. A black wet-nurse, Elizabeth (Nikita Waldron), is called in to make up for her insufficient milk supply, though Mrs Givings fears that the baby will bond with the wet-nurse more than her. Attempting to overcome her bitterness towards this situation, Mrs Givings grows increasingly curious about the nature of her husband’s work. Frustrated at his detachment and indifference, Mrs Givings attempts to relieve her loneliness by conversing with her husband’s patients about his treatment methods. Her conversations with the newly liberated Mrs Daldry are particularly enlightening, not to mention amusing. In the second act, Mrs Givings discovers a world of sexual possibility, enhanced by the entrance of Leo (Dylan Van Den Berg), an impassioned painter visiting from Europe and one of Dr Givings’ rare male patients. After realising her own sexual desire, Mrs Givings seeks to inspire jealousy and passion in her husband, bringing him out of the next room and back into her life.

As the character at the heart of the play, Hall is magnificent in her portrayal of the tactless and candid Mrs Givings. Hall is full of energy and life, but also impressively conveys her character’s unhappiness. Baudert as her husband makes an extraordinarily convincing doctor and scientist, with every gesture and movement entirely practical and logical. The Givings’ relationship feels real and genuine, which speaks to the tremendous job which Baudert and Hall have done in establishing the chemistry between the two characters. Klein plays stoic nurse-midwife Annie with firm sympathy and a fully human dimension, and it is fascinating to watch her lose her composure as the play progresses. Waldron’s Elizabeth is movingly played, becoming truly captivating during an impassioned and emotional monologue about her dead infant son. Van Den Berg as the visiting artist brings an unconventional flair to the Givings’ living room, while Batten’s pompousness and comedic timing is very polished. The highlight of the show, however, is Jones as Mrs Daldry. Jones is excellent as the only entirely relatable character of the play. She should also be commended for her ability to unselfconsciously fake a realistic orgasm on stage, with hilarious facial expressions and an impressive vocal range.

The realism of the play is highlighted by Ava Jorge’s exquisite set and costume design. The play is staged beautifully, with great use of imaginary space and minimal structural features to separate the two rooms. Jorge’s lovely and detailed set dressing is well-suited to the Victorian context, as are the costumes. On the technical side of things, Jed Buchanan’s lighting design is particularly clever for the way it shows the distinction between electric and natural lighting. Despite some minor teething issues with lighting and sound effects, this play is really indicative of how professional NUTS has become as a theatre society.  

This is a play which grapples with a number of issues; not only the forbidden nature of female sexual desire but also the disconnect between bodily experience and mental perception. The women of Sarah Ruhl’s play are learning to experience something they need and desire, but are still unable to articulate exactly what it is. The 21st century is still a time of rapid technological change, though we’ve long since adapted to electricity, and it seems that there is still some way to go before we are truly comfortable with the idea of talking about female sexuality. This thought-provoking play provides the impetus for such a discussion. A serious comedy which is both original and genuinely touching, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) is a stimulating and ultimately satisfying experience.