Review: The Vibrator Play

An empowering exploration of female sexuality, hilarious moments, and a crazy old Victorian vibrator


‘Sugar?’ ‘No thank you. Sugar is for women and small fat boys.’

In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) is full of gems like this. Always shifting between moments of hilarious awkwardness and poeticism, this play is not one to miss.

When I rocked up at the ADC I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I wondered whether the production would succeed in a nuanced exploration of a cultural shift towards an understanding of female pleasure. But what I was met with was a very sensitive and often touching (no pun intended, folks) interpretation.

The Vibrator Play is set in 1880s New York and follows the lives of Dr Givings (who invented the vibrator to cure ‘hysteria’) and his wife, Mrs Givings. Patients are whisked into and from a mysterious and masterfully clinical ‘next room’ from which they emerge glowing. We see a vivacious woman stifled by a marriage devoid of intimacy and a house devoid of company, a woman tormented by her own inadequacies. And in this crushing environment, a flurry of people unable to face their own bodies, their own needs.

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This is a play that deals with many sensitive topics, on the whole adeptly. It is difficult to do justice to all the different elements- it tries to tackle the racism of a woman obliged to depend on someone she looks down on, a queer subplot and the taboo of sexual pleasure in a society that was shocked by female orgasm. Particularly the queer narrative could have been made more of, and would have provided even more of a counterpoint to the largely heteronormative frame. Alayo Akinkugbe’s speech, however, gave me shivers. Shadowed by the death of her own child, and forced to breastfeed a white woman’s, she cries out to Mrs Givings, ‘I hope you remember the blood she was made of. The blood of my son.’

I really shouldn’t understate how few shows I’ve seen that had acting this slick on the first night. Tiny gestures, comic timing, facial expressions, all were brilliantly delivered. Mabel Hoskins’s Mrs Givings was vibrant, problematic, frustrated, and knotty all at once. Meg Coslett and William Batty provided the principal comic counterpoints that breathed fresh air into the show, as did Ben Galvin’s subtly obnoxious painterly abstractions. Hoskins and Jones’s relationship was initially difficult to grasp- which is of course the point- but the chemistry between them and the understanding of both shame and frustration, the desire to please and not to be laughed at, to take care of and to be free, were powerfully portrayed.

Image may contain: Piano, Musician, Musical Instrument, Leisure Activities, Apparel, Clothing, Sitting, Human, Person

Proximity and distance were always at the forefront with the brilliantly designed set. It featured a semi-division in the middle of the stage, keeping ‘the next room’ always at arm’s length but never wholly inaccessible. Costume, too, was a real strong point, right down to the excessively flamboyant underclothes!

The only real things I would pick up on would be some pacing issues; the script could have been cut down by a good half hour, and there were a couple of scene transitions that were simply too long considering how little appeared to actually change during them. But these really are minor quibbles.

The final scene was nothing short of stunning, and will stay with me for a long time.
I would say, come (ha) and see this show: there’s some really powerful acting, hilarious moments, and, lucky you, you’ll get to see a crazy old Victorian vibrator!!

4/5 stars

** also apologies for the appalling puns, my exams are in two days, I have to get my joy from somewhere

Photography: Grace Glevey