Machinal Review – ‘poignant but not perfect’

A play with an imperfect but impactful vision, inspired by a true story of murder and womanhood

Photo: Johan Persson

The Almeida Theatre is well known for reviving forgotten 20th century plays, having run Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke earlier this year, their most recent contribution is Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 one act play. A play about women, marriage and the monotony of life – it’s as relevant today as it was ninety years ago.

Treadwell’s play was loosely inspired by the 1927 real life case of convicted and executed killer Ruth Snyder, who brutally murdered her husband with the assistance of her lover Judd Gray, and was sentenced to the electric chair for her crime. The Young Woman in Machinal – the characters are unnamed in the credits – seems more sympathetic than this, and unlike Snyder we do not feel that she deserves her sorry end.

Emily Berrington takes on the demanding role of the Young Woman, named Helen during the play, and pulls off an impressive, although slightly misjudged, performance. She excels most when she speaks the least, and while the scenes with Helen and her husband are good, she has a tendency to rattle off perplexing monologues that seem to slip into an unconvincing hysteria, leaving her disengaged from the audience. This is not Berrington, for she is certainly a very able actress, but her portrayal may have been more effective had she chosen to inject more resilience into the Young Woman at certain moments.

As her blissfully ignorant and unsympathetic husband George H. Jones, Jonathan Livingstone impresses. He is strangely likeable in a character who we should loathe, and can be amusing at unexpected moments. It may be his charisma and charm that removes some of the audience’s sympathy for the woman at the centre of the tale, and it is almost – not quite, but almost – a shame when he meets his end. Similarly, Dwane Walcott as the sexy young man who brings her fleeting pleasure judges his role perfectly and is so masterfully smooth that you can understand why she becomes fixated.

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Machinal is quite unique in that it is a one act play lasting only eighty minutes with an episodic structure. Each of the ten episodes possesses a vague title – ‘Domestic’, ‘Business, ‘Honeymoon’- and each is set in a different time period, although with the same characters. Not everybody likes plays with a single act, but this one ends at the right time, when you feel there should be a natural conclusion. However, a few scenes seem to drag on, particular the opening few and for me these were not as impressive as the rest. The first two scenes feel melodramatic and exaggerated and Berrington’s monologue is slightly forced, although many critics have praised elements of these scenes, particularly Denise Black’s performance as Mother. There is a definite improvement throughout the play, nonetheless, and the final scenes are excellently done.

My one main fault with this production is the choice to set each scene in a different time period. This is done through subtle changes – the typewriters and rotary diel telephones in episode one suggest we are in the 1920s/30s but the CNN reporters at the trial in episode nine reveal it to be the present day. The intention may be to allow all women throughout time to be able to relate to Helen’s predicament, but it does not totally work. For instance, her sense of obligation to marry makes sense in the early 20th century, but not in present day.

Perhaps the most impressive element of this production is Miriam Beuther’s stunning and original set design. At the end of each episode jaws of blinding white light close over the stage and open again for the next one. It certainly adds to the feeling of suffocation experienced by the Young Woman as the jaws literally swallow up her, cutting off her air. The staging is also amplified by a large sloping mirror at the back, which allows the audience to see the reflection of the characters in the mirror – especially powerful in the first scene at work as it emphasises the monotonous repetition of quotidian working life. It makes it look like a machine.

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It is certainly a poignant play with meaning that has not faded over the years and the acting ranges from good to superb. The production itself may not be perfect, but it is clever and captivating. Emily Berrington may be one to watch.