Machinal: A play by Sophie Treadwell at The Old Vic

This production retains the play’s interwar setting – there’s a typing pool in an office with filing clerks galore and an overworked switchboard operator who deals with phone calls and staff queries as they come. Nobody works from home. But, as if to emphasise the relative anonymity of the employees who can be ‘easily’ (inverted commas mine) replaced, the cast list doesn’t give them actual names, only job names, like Stenographer, Adding Clerk, Filing Clerk, Office Clerk and Telephone Girl. Mind you, even in out-of-work settings, there are only descriptive names, like Older Man at Bar and Husband. The only person who appears in all nine scenes (or ‘episodes’ as the play would have it) is Young Woman (Rosie Sheehy), eventually identified as Helen Jones because she is called to the witness stand as such in court.

Buffy Davis (Mother) and Rosie Sheehy (Young Woman) in Machinal at The Old Vic - credit Manuel Harlan.
Buffy Davis (Mother) and Rosie Sheehy (Young Woman) in Machinal at The Old Vic – credit Manuel Harlan.

The narrative takes as its source material the actual case of Ruth Snyder (1895-1928), who murdered her husband Albert, and while some stage time is given to court proceedings, the majority of the show gives the central character a lot of context – or, if you will, backstory. It’s why it works so well as a period piece in 2024 although it premiered only a few months after Snyder’s execution by electrocution. Some episodes may not, in themselves, have much to do with the murder directly, but combined, they paint a portrait of a woman constrained by the societal norms of the day.

It’s quite absurd in this day and age, for instance, that a woman should be expected to give up her career if she were to get married (one of the reasons for the Young Woman initially resisting the charms of her future husband), and the prevailing attitudes at the time makes one appreciate quite how far the world has come, even if there is still much progress still to be made. Indeed, the play suggests that society at large (again, at the time) had its part to play in forcing the Young Woman’s hand.

Not for the first time, there was a scene in which The Old Vic was plunged into complete darkness for a few minutes. My previous experience of this was during a revival of The Duchess of Malfi in 2012, in which then, as now, even the fire exit signs went dark – you really couldn’t see anything at all. Everything is set against an almost garish bright yellow backdrop, from which (aside from the momentary darkness) there is, like the predicament the Young Woman finds herself in, no escape. Her traumatic experience when it came to giving birth was quite brutally depicted – interestingly, though, the murder itself is an off-stage event. But the play, and this production of it, leaves the audience in no doubt as to what happened.

The delivery of the dialogue is sufficiently varied, from the relaxed conversation between the Young Woman and her lover (Pierro Niel-Mee) to her being questioned in court by both defence (Daniel Abelson) and prosecution (Sam Alexander) counsel. A song about freedom sung by a prisoner (Daniel Bowerbank), condemned just like the Young Woman, is both cathartic and delightful. The danger of becoming a cog in a proverbial machine as portrayed in Machinal hasn’t gone away, and it has its contemporary equivalents, for example in the ‘gig economy’, and in companies where a set number of inputs are expected every working hour, such as checkout staff at discount supermarkets. All things considered, it’s sometimes an uncomfortable evening at the theatre, but it’s nonetheless an intense and intriguing experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

How can that be? A great sin – a mortal sin – for which I must die and go to hell – but it made me free! One moment I was free!’

From the outside, Helen Jones and her husband had a ‘happy marriage’. Until she murdered him.

Based on the true crime story of Ruth Snyder in 1928 that shook a nation, Sophie Treadwell’s seminal Machinal is a pulse-pounding journey of someone pushed to breaking point by the relentless machinery of life, expectation and convention.

A Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath production in association with The Old Vic
Presented by arrangement with Nick Hern Books

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