Photo: Manuel Harlan

We’ll say this right away – Machinal is not an easy watch. In fact, it’s one of the most unnerving plays we’ve seen. Ever.

This is largely due to the subject matter: it’s loosely based on the trial of Ruth Snyder, who murdered her husband and was sentenced to death. A photo of her in the electric chair was published on front pages across the USA the morning after her execution, making her a household name at the time. Playwright Sophie Treadwell attended the trial in 1927 although did not report on it; instead she wrote Machinal as a response, positioning Ruth as having been pushed to breaking point by society’s expectations of women.

Rosie Sheehy is the star of the show in a haunting, captivating performance of the young woman who is based on Ruth. Initially she doesn’t seem anything too out of the ordinary – she’s fed up with her job, she finds her demanding mother a little overbearing, she flinches when her vaguely-repulsive husband tries to touch her. Over the course of the evening we see her struggle more and more with the role she’s been cast – her descent is as fascinating as it is chilling, and it’s performed brilliantly.

The play (1hr 50mins no interval) moves at a relentless pace – it’s not a musical, although there is a distinct rhythm to the piece. Background chatter makes for a percussive beat in the office, while overlapping conversations drive the performance forward in a speakeasy.

It also feels like an incredibly claustrophobic performance – taking place on a narrow wedge of The Old Vic’s stage, each scene is barely different from the last, save for a few props being moved around and a sign denoting the setting. There are a couple of unsettling moments of darkness, too – it’s a show which really knows how to dial up the intensity, and does so pretty relentlessly.

Machinal is a truly impressive piece of theatre – it tells a compelling story and there’s some excellent acting here from the terrific cast. We don’t think it will suit every taste – it’s an intense watch and the subject matter is absolutely chilling – but it makes for gripping theatre nonetheless.

GAY TIMES gives Machinal – 4/5

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