Natalie Casey and Flora Montgomery in In The Next Room
Natalie Casey and Flora Montgomery in In The Next Room
© Johan Persson

Sarah Ruhl's 2009 Broadway play is certainly a new development in the intimate theatre movement as envisaged by Strindberg and others: the repeated demonstration, under a bed sheet, of how symptoms of "hysteria" in late 19th century New York women, could be treated with electric vibratory massage.

The "next room" of the title is, in Simon Kenny's split-level design for Laurence Boswell's Theatre Royal, Bath, production (premiered in the Ustinov Studio last year), the upstairs surgery; here, thanks to the innovations in electrical goods after the recent discoveries of Thomas Edison, Dr Givings (Jason Hughes) induces female "paroxysms" in the application of what looks like a little hairdryer.

His chief and increasingly enthusiastic patient is Flora Montgomery's emotionally "pent up" Mrs Sabrina Daldry, whose doltish husband (Owen Oakeshott) is unable to assuage her torment.

Before long, she is popping in for a daily dose, and even dashing back having "forgotten" her gloves, until Givings finds that her treatment requires some extra digital probing to maintain her cries and groans of well-being and relief. Assistance is also at hand, so to speak, from Sarah Woodward's stony-faced but weirdly interested nurse Annie.

The audience could not quite believe what they were seeing (and hearing), and things take a turn for the even more bizarre when an adventurous painter, Leo Irving (played at full extravagant tilt by Edward Bennett), is spread-eagled on the surgery bed and sedately penetrated by what Givings calls the "Chattanooga" variation.

I don't know what Ann Summers calls it these days, but this one steams through old Leo's tunnel like its namesake, the Chattanooga choo-choo, whistles and all, and sounds a whole lot more fun than your common-or-garden High Street butt plug.

Soon, Dr Givings' wife, the demure but equally frustrated Catherine of Natalie Casey, is calling for a piece of the action herself; she, too, is all "pent up," so much so that her baby has to be farmed out to a sexually adjusted and relaxed black wet-nurse (Madeline Appiah).

Ruhl's point is that true marital harmony, or even social compatibility, depends on some degree of sexual liberation. This is not the same, of course, as undermining white Victorian taboos, but the play suggests it might be, and the Givings marriage is apparently redeemed in a snow storm with a spot of longed-for gratuitous nudity - throw those corsets right out - male, of course.

It all seems a rather glib and clunkily written message, designed to provide dramatic titillation that is curiously unsexy after about five minutes. One orgasm, after all, sounds very much like another and, happy as I am to hear Montgomery ring a few discreet changes in her ecstatic squawks and squeaks, she's soon operating with as much going as coming in the law of diminishing returns.

In leaving the theatre, I failed to notice if there was a souvenir stand bedecked with some of the show's electrical devices ("As used on stage, live, every night by, and on, respectable Equity members"). The medium is the massage, and the least the St James could do is put its money where Miss Ruhl's mouth is.

Read our review of the original 2012 production at the Theatre Royal, Bath