In The Next room or The Vibrator Play | Melbourne Theatre Company


In The Next room or The Vibrator Play | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Jacqueline McKenzie and Helen Thomson. Cover – Helen Thomson and Jacqueline McKenzie. Photos – Brett Boardman

In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play
is the third work by US playwright Sarah Ruhl the MTC has produced. Last year we saw Dead Man’s Cell Phone and her play The Clean House was given an outing here in 2006.

In The Next Room bills itself as a comedy and it is at its best when playing for laughs; the wit is elegant and here we have a writer who knows exactly how (if not always when) to keep out of the way of her story. The gorgeous set and costumes, and the tone of the early scenes lead an audience to expect a drawing room comedy of manners kind of performance, almost like David Mamet’s Boston Marriage (seen last year at the Arts Centre featuring Pamela Rabe, who is the director of In The Next Room). The subject matter, the treatment of ‘hysteria’ by ‘vulval massage’, lends itself easily to innuendo while exploring the dim history and interesting facts of western ambivalence towards female sexuality. The laughs are uncomfortable, though, because we know how much damage ignorance and over-medicalisation has historically contributed to female suffering. This production is fortunate in having drawcard actor Jacqueline McKenzie playing the lead role of Catherine Givings, a society matron married to an insensitive but well-meaning doctor oblivious to her emotional needs.

Funny and ironic moments delight as we watch characters intrigued by the possibilities of the wonderful new supply of electricity while becoming quickly dependent on Dr Givings’s (David Roberts) remedies for nerves. But the relationships are the main concerns of the play; believable ‘period’ dialogue rings true, even when you can see clearly why this thread or that is woven into the story. The facts surrounding the beliefs of the time are interesting indeed and are handled in a convincing way. The characters of the painter, Leo Irving (Josh McConville), and the wet nurse, Elizabeth (Sara Zwangobani), are plot devices, well-written but obviously there for the protagonist to come up against in one respect or another.

The play, although strong and resolved, veers off down a small, sad alleyway with the superfluous subplot of the wet nurse and her dead baby. A peculiar tension is set up by light and dark doing battle with each other in the story, as though the writer is avoiding any charges of levity while exposing some grim aspects of women’s lives 100 years ago. But the sorrowful story of Elizabeth and her dead darling Henry is out of place; the narrative isn’t served well by this sidetrack, which adds to the length of an already substantial work. Act Two is darker in tone again and this is where the play lets itself down. In lesser hands a play trying to straddle both tragic drama and comedy in this way would fail; this, however, does satisfy because of powerful performances and a hardworking script that is truthful and extensive.

Ruhl takes a traditional approach to playwriting; she is not an innovative writer but her plotting and characterisation are so strong that the play works despite itself. The splendid job by McKenzie lifts the production out of a potentially sentimental mire. It is a sweet play. Fortunately, we do care about the characters and the story and are cheering the Givings couple on in their discovery of each other by the end.


Melbourne Theatre Company presents a Sydney Theatre Company production
In the Next Room or the vibrator play
by Sarah Ruhl

Director Pamela Rabe

Venue: The MTC Theatre, Sumner | 140 Southbank Blvd, Southbank
Dates: 7 April – 14 May 2011
Tickets: from $61.10
Bookings: MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au




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