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Review of Machinal by Sophie Treadwell at The Almeida Theatre

Machinal at the Almeida. Kirsty Rider, Emily Berrington, Dwane Walcott and Alan Morrissey. Photo credit Johan Persson.
Machinal at the Almeida. Kirsty Rider, Emily Berrington, Dwane Walcott and Alan Morrissey. Photo credit Johan Persson.

There are times in our lives when we all feel like cogs in a machine. This can be at work, home and even leisure. For most of us, the overall production line of life is something like this: birth, school, work, marriage, children, retirement and death. Of course, individuals are free to make decisions about how their journey is run. Or can they? Playwright Sophie Treadwell In her one-act play Machinal currently at the Almeida takes this idea and looks at it from a female viewpoint in a patriarchal world.

Over the course of nine ‘episodes’ we follow the life of a young lady – initially identified only as Miss A and later as Helen (Emily Berrington) – who starts off as a stenographer but is ‘lucky’ enough to catch the boss’ eye and, thanks to her bullying dependant mother’s (Denise Black), shall we say, prodding, soon marries Mr Jones (Jonathan Livingstone). Her life then follows what seems to be a pre-ordained path until she finds a moment’s happiness in the arms of another man, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.

Originally written in 1928, Machinal is still as relevant today as it was 90 years ago and Director Natalie Abrahami has kept that relevance by blurring the timelines so that when we first meet Miss A, it appears to be in a 1920’s style office and by the time she is in prison, we are definitely in the modern era with television journalists reporting live from the courtroom. In a nice touch, each journalist took an opposing view of the courtroom antics – Fake news versus real news, a real case of life imitating art. The change between the eras is highlighted by Alex Lowde’s costumes and the various sets designed by Miriam Buether which includes a horizontally split ‘curtain’ edged with bright white light that almost acts like jaws, clamping down and holding Helen in the life she is inhabiting. And actually, that is another point, the scene and costume changes while the curtains are closed are slick and totally set the mood for the next ‘episode’ when they re-open. I liked the way that we, the audience, were treated as adults and not spoon fed every scrap of detail in Helen’s life but were let into various episodes and allowed to make up our own minds a to what happens to her in the times we aren’t sharing her journey. The only negative with this was that I never really felt I had a chance to get to know Helen that well so by the end, I was in two minds as to whether she was a victim of the patriarchal society in which she existed or was someone solely responsible for the way her life turned out. One other thing to mention is Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design which, in some ways intrudes on the story but actually adds to ‘the purgatory of noise’ that constantly invades Helen’s life.

Something else to say on the writing, there is an amazing scene in a ‘speakeasy’ where Helen meets her lover. This is exciting enough but what makes it more so, remembering that this play was written in 1928, is that there are two other couples in the bar at the same time. At one table there is a man trying to persuade his female partner to have an abortion, and at another, there is a gay man seducing a young student. Both seemingly commonplace today but definitely shocking ninety years ago.

Emily Berrington’s portrayal of Helen is wonderful to watch. Although life beats her down, she is still standing, even when she believes she is just this little cog on a production line that runs from point A to point B. She fights, but does it meekly – although the moment she turns on her mother is brilliant. And Emily really does make Helen a sort of everywoman that even I, a bloke and therefore part of the patriarchy, could see and recognise. Emily also has a wonderful way of delivering the, at times almost poetic prose that Helen uses to describe her life and express her desire for freedom.

Machinal packs an awful lot into its around ninety minutes run time. In the end, you are left to question your feelings about Helen and in some respects wonder why she seemed to submit so easily to life’s plan for her. Ultimately though if you are a small cog in a large machine moving on a conveyor belt from A to B, maybe you just don’t get the opportunity to see what other choices are available to you.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Your skin oughtn’t to curl – ought it – when he just comes near you – ought it? That’s wrong, ain’t it? You don’t get over that, do you – ever, do you or do you?
The city. A woman is restless. A woman is suffocating. A woman is silenced.
The woman revolts.

The cast includes Nathalie Armin, Emily Berrington, Khali Best, Denise Black, Demetri Goritsas, Andrew Lewis, Jonathan Livingstone, John Mackay, Alan Morrissey, Kirsty Rider, Augustina Seymour and Dwane Walcott.

Natalie Abrahami directs a visceral production of Sophie Treadwell’s masterpiece.

By Sophie Treadwell
Directed by Natalie Abrahami; Designed by Miriam Buether
Costume Design by Alex Lowde; Choreography by Arthur Pita
Lighting Design by Jack Knowles; Composition and Sound by Ben and Max Ringham
Casting by Julia Horan
Monday 4 June – Saturday 21 July 2018


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