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IN THE NEXT ROOMRONDO THEATRE

 

This latest from the estimable Rondo Theatre Company is set in Victorian England (transposed from the original New York 1886 setting of Sarah Ruhl’s 2009 play) and has at first glance the air of a period domestic comedy. The lavish set and costumes, and mannered patterns of speech are beautifully evocative of that era. But no Victorian playwright would have got away with the themes of this play; it centres around the curiously misogynist and pseudo-scientific attitudes of the day towards the treatment of ‘hysteria’, and the fascination with the seemingly (to them) magical healing properties of that new-fangled thing, electricity. In short, the vibrator. Dr Givings is a conscientious physician who is called upon to treat a Mrs Daldry, brought here by her ghastly overbearing husband because of her unsurprisingly nervous and withdrawn nature. The good Doctor relieves her symptoms by the application of this new scientific instrument, bringing her to a ‘paroxysm’ and thus releasing the uterine pressure which causes her enfeebled state (Medical opinion really did think this true.). Mrs Daldry is noisily appreciative, and is eager to continue treatment. Meanwhile Mrs Givings is concerned about her failure to provide milk for the Givings’ baby daughter (whom, amazingly, no-one refers to as Miss Givings) and seeks a wet nurse. As things unfold, pretty much everyone seeks the ‘treatment’ including the doctor’s assistant and a marvellously over-the-top Whistler-style artist; and until the very end, no-one actually connects any of it with sex – with potentially hilarious consequences. There are serious issues here about the role of women, and the warped attitudes towards sex, class and race at the time; but mostly it’s just very funny. Partly because of the script, but mainly because of the excellence of the performances. Harriet Wyatt’s wonderfully demanding, flighty, flirty Mrs Givings; Rob Dawson’s pedantic Dr Givings with his ‘scientific outlook’ and dim unawareness of his wife’s amorous needs; Sophie Kerr as the increasingly lubricious and rejuvenated Mrs Daldry; I could go on. All of the cast are adepts: not a glance, not a grimace, not a gesture out of place. Every line, every move, every gag perfectly timed – and in the operating chamber (which is In The Next Room, geddit?) nobody stints on giving full welly to the sounds of ‘paroxysm.’ Surprising that no-one in the audience shouts “I’ll have what she’s having!” And though the script goes perhaps just a little awry in the second half, when everyone starts falling unaccountably in love with everyone else, the laughs continue thick and fast; and the piece reaches its climax (ahem) with, as they say in the massage parlours, a happy ending. Great fun.

 

                                                                                       John Christopher Wood


Photo by Lisa Hounsome