Sophie Treadwell
Old Vic Theatre and Theatre Royal, Bath
Old Vic Theatre

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Centre: Steven Beard as Judge and Rosie Sheehy as Young Woman Credit: Manuel Harlan
Tim Frances as Husband and Rosie Sheehy as Young Woman Credit: Manuel Harlan
Buffy Davis as Mother and Rosie Sheehy as Young Woman Credit: Manuel Harlan
Rosie Sheehy as Young Woman and Pierro Niel-Mee as Young Man Credit: Manuel Harlan
Daniel Bowerbank as Prisoner and Rosie Sheehy as Young Woman Credit: Manuel Harlan

Journalist Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play, loosely based on a contemporary Prohibition Era murder case, is often considered a landmark piece of Expressionist theatre, and this production by Richard Jones (first seen last year in Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio) is boldly stylised.

An angled setting of yellow walls out of which open multiple hidden doors corrals a cast of characters lacking personal names whose almost mechanised movement as crammed like sardines as commuters or in the cacophonous bustle of the workplace casts ominous shadows, while the title of each episodic scene hangs above them. The starkness of Hyemi Shin’s set, Adam Silverman’s lighting and Nicky Gillibrand's mainly black costumes is matched by the movement devised by Sarah Fahie.

The Young Woman, a stenographer habitually late for work, is her boss Mr J’s favourite, much to her colleagues' annoyance. He finds her hands very attractive. She finds him repulsive, but she eventually succumbs to his proposals, endures a honeymoon and in traumatic childbirth has a daughter.

Trapped in an unsatisfying job with a bad-tempered mother to support and then trapped in an unhappy marriage, this is a feminist picture of a lack of opportunity and of control over her own life. Eventually, she has an affair with the Young Man whom she meets in a speakeasy. She devises a plan to gain her freedom based on something her lover told her, but in the law court, it is he who gives evidence against her and she ends up trapped in the final machine: the electric chair.

The plot is simplistic, the characters cyphers, but the way it is told makes this a positive experience. Buffy Davis as the grumpy mother who gets beaten up by her daughter, Tim Frances as the boss who marries her, Pierro Niel-Mee as her lover, Steven Dykes and Emilio Iannucci as the Prosecution and Defence Lawyers and the whole ensemble in their multiple roles deliver performances in consistent style, real in the moment.

Rosie Sheehy plays the Young Woman, who in the courtroom eventually gets the name of Helen. She goes from baffled and browbeaten to vindictive, from fearful of intimacy to really randy (blushes spared by a very long blackout). On her cotton-print dress, she may seem fragile, but flashes of adrenaline can fuel violence. Many women live under much greater oppression than she has to put up with, but Helen can’t take it. When she struggles to her final destination, she seems totally broken as she weaves her way through a succession of doorways. It is a performance to be proud of.

This Machinal lasts nearly two hours at a single stretch with only a few laughs to lighten it. It doesn’t set out to win our sympathy, but rather asks us to observe and consider Helen’s situation. Has that changed enough in the 90+ years since it was first staged?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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