Awkward laughs prove to be just what the doctor ordered

St James Theatre | By Simon Thomson
Four Stars

IT’S THE dawn of the electrical age in a spa town near New York, and the enterprising Doctor Givings is treating hysterical patients. With vibrators. This is the West End transfer of Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-and-Pulitzer-nominated comedy In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, directed by Laurence Boswell.

The action takes place in the home of Dr Givings and his wife Catherine, which includes a surgery – the titular Next Room – where Dr Givings sees his patients. The set is on two levels, with the surgery upstairs from the Givings’ living room; a clever trick which allows the audience to observe the action in both locations simultaneously, (though it demands some uncomfortable neck-craning from the front few rows).

The first half is involving but light, and the central couple are so awkward to the extent, initially, it is unclear whether they’re hesitant, uncertain characters, or whether their relationship is merely poorly acted. But as the play went on, I became convinced it was the former, and Natalie Casey is especially entertaining as the socially inappropriate chatterbox Catherine Givings.

The play comes alive after the interval, with the addition of a scene-stealing artist played by Edward Bennett, and with the arrival of a steady supply of genuinely funny jokes. The first half is amusing enough, but it is effectively the set-up for a slew of laugh-out-loud gags in the second.

However, the humour is incidental to the story as the play has a lot to say about loneliness, inadequacy and being unfulfilled. If the characters were simply frivolous, it would be impossible to address such serious issues. Newly-hired wet nurse Madeline Appiah is the tragic heart of the piece; she’s particularly affecting as she mourns the loss of her own child while caring for the Givings’.

The extent to which conversations dwell on electricity and the relative merits of incandescent lighting strains its historical credibility. It’s like watching a play set in the late 1990s where every conversation circled back to the World Wide Web and the 56k modem.

Quibblings aside, In the Next Room is thoroughly enjoyable and its themes of depression and confused sexuality in a period of rapid technological change are perpetually relevant.

Simon Lee Gallery | By James Bell
Four Stars

DAVID Ostrowski was recently interviewed by art-house cinema enfant terrible Harmony Korine. When asked if his parents were artistic, Ostrowski responded, “My mother is a singer and actress; my father is an artist and alcoholic. Both completely without any talent whatsoever.” A quick walk round his latest exhibition at the Simon Lee Gallery and you’d be forgiven for thinking the apple has fallen in alarmingly close proximity to the tree. His paintings look less like the culmination of purposeful artistic endeavour and more like replicas of arbitrarily selected segments of wall in neglected towns.

However, give it a little longer and you see that he over-writes and deletes parts of more familiar images in a way that draws attention to the beauty of the incidental. Portraits and photographs are painted over with abstract marks, making unexpectedly enigmatic forms appear out of defacement. The results are powerful. Stand before the paintings for a long time and you realise the dirty-seeming chaos is actually minutely orchestrated.

An engrossing and affectionate ode to making mistakes.