In the Next Room takes us back to a time when domestic electricity was a novelty and hysteria a legitimate medical condition. According to Dr Givings (Craig Battams), a little vibration down there can ease all sorts of problems – anxiety, faintness and lack of motivation.
This production is a creation of FLW Theatre, a student-run group affiliated with Melbourne University. The 2009 Broadway original is by playwright Sarah Ruhl, a three-time Tony Award nominee and Pulitzer Prize finalist. Under the excellent direction of Matilda Dixon-Smith, a strong cast of seven is featured – each playing believable, developed characters who form as many intertwined relationships as a soap opera.
Set in two adjacent rooms in the house of the well-to-do Givings family, one room functions as an operating theatre and the other a drawing room and nursery. Out of boredom, the highly-strung Catherine Givings (Bridget Sweeney) makes acquaintance with the regular patients. After some eavesdropping she becomes increasingly curious about her husband’s practice, convincing one patient to show the device used to treat hysteria.
A bond forms between the anxious Sabrina Daldry (Leila Enright) and neurotic Catherine, which leads to a hilarious back-and-forth with a clinical vibrator. Visits from a pompous English artist (Sebastian Kitchen), a patient’s husband (Jan Mihal), a hesitant wet nurse (Amelia Burke) and a diligent midwife (Sally Kingsford) bring Catherine closer to articulating what’s missing in her marriage. Ruhl’s script is cleverly crafted, packed with innuendos, philosophy and dramatic irony.
In the Next Room is an exploration of the demise of marriage, repression of female sexuality and the impact of new technology in the 1800s. The promising cast delivers an emotive, delightful and brave piece of theatre by any standards – not just student theatre.