REVIEW: In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play (Auckland Theatre Company)

Anna Jullienne has her 'hysteria' treated... Photography: Michael Smith

A Play In Need of Its Own Treatment [by Rosabel Tan]

Anna Jullienne has her 'hysteria' treated... Photography: Michael Smith

We live in an age of sexual liberation: where mutual attempts to disentangle emotional and physical expressions of love are treated as an act of empowerment – friends with benefits, no strings attached. But whether they can be separated is another question altogether, and this is a focal point of Auckland Theatre Company’s latest production, In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play. Set in the late nineteenth century, it presents a society typified by the emotional without the physical: spouses without benefits, and all the strings attached to an unsatisfying seven minutes in the dark.

More than that, it returns us to a time when female sexuality was barely recognised. We follow Dr Givings (Adam Gardiner), a man renowned for his success in treating hysteria in women. The therapy: a breakthrough piece of electrical equipment that induces ‘paroxysms’, a phenomenon that flushes the excess fluid from the womb and relieves women of symptoms such as irritability, depression, and a general tendency to cause trouble.

Givings by name but less so by nature (the true nature of these paroxysms appear to elude everybody involved), the real trouble arises in one Mrs Givings, charmingly played by Anna Jullienne, who captures with wild abandon the frustration of being a vibrant soul, a neglected wife and a mother unable to produce breast milk for her newborn. The couple hire a wet nurse to deal with the latter, leaving her feeling ineffectual and alone and insatiably intrigued by the moans being emitted intermittently from the next room.

Gardiner is compelling as the awkwardly rational scientist unable to understand the romantic yearnings of his wife, and together the cast channel an exuberant energy that carries us through the play, though at times this would have benefitted from being toned down. Although In The Room works as a comedy of manners, at its core is a compelling story about the breakdown of intimacy, and scenes that could have been genuinely touching are hampered by slapstick reactions. This became particularly apparent when juxtaposed with minor characters like Dr Givings’ assistant Annie (Hera Dunleavy) and Elizabeth (Lavinia Uhila), the wet nurse. Bewilderingly, they are played more naturalistically and are given the greatest psychological depth, making them particular highlights of the play and casting into relief what the other characters lack.

Neither straight farce nor drama, the play’s greatest weakness is its inability to decide what it wants to be. This is the case for its narrative structure as well as its tone – the first half is set up to be unravelled in the second, and it accomplishes this so convolutedly that it leaves you feeling unclear about what you are meant to take away from it beyond the hilarity of witnessing multiple simulated orgasms and a few bare butts. As a result, the ending – one of the most aesthetically breathtaking scenes I’ve seen in theatre, accomplished through Rachel Walker’s gorgeous set design and Philip Dexter’s subtle lighting – felt unearned and disconcertingly sentimental.

Nonetheless, the play touches on some fascinating dynamics – Mrs Givings is thwarted at every attempt at physical intimacy, not only with her husband but with her baby, and the sexual discovery experienced by both her and Mrs Daldry (Toni Potter) is entertaining and heartbreaking in equal measure. Ultimately, though, In the Next Room felt like one of Dr Givings’ own patients: occasionally intelligent and great at its core, but hysterical and in need of a good wank to calm itself down.

In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at the Maidment Theatre until 7th April. More details see ATC.co.nz

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Vanessa Byrnes

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1 Comment on REVIEW: In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play (Auckland Theatre Company)

  1. BAHAHAHA looks like Maia Jeffries finally got what she wanted out of Alice after all those years! I’d move to New Zealand just to watch this. That photo has me in stitches!

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