Machinal tells the story of a young woman (based on Ruth Snyder) as she finds herself trapped in life's machine. She treads water through her daily grind before agreeing to marry her (implied to be abusive) boss out of necessity rather than love. After an evening of passion and connection with a stranger, the woman is inspired to break free of her prison, and murders her husband, consequently finding herself facing justice and being sentenced to death - she is finally free. The piece explores what could drive a woman to this point, taking creative liberties with the historical narrative in order to showcase some universal realities of what it means to live as a woman in our society, many of which are all too relatable even almost a century later. 

A far more Brechtian spectacle than is often present on the London theatre scene today, Machinal is a creative triumph. The cast never misses a beat of the slick and incredibly deliberate choreography of every scene. Truly, Richard Jones' direction is a marvel, as we are constantly distanced from the action - through exaggerated strange performances and relentless pacing, not to mention Hyemi Shin's stunningly versatile but clinical set - until the moment of reckoning when the audience becomes the jury. Shin's design that forces the action into a tiny portion of The Old Vic's stage instantly sets the claustrophobic tone that underpins the play, enhanced by Adam Silverman's exceptional lighting (and expert manipulation of shadow) and Benjamin Grant's sparse but sublimely affecting sound. The creative team have perfectly understood how to present a script penned in 1928 that is still so painfully relevant in a way that forces us to reflect rather than indulge in the drama before us. 

There are a plethora of excellent performances within this talented ensemble. Notably (but not exhaustively): Carla Harrison-Hodge gives a brilliant caricature performance; Buffy Davis brings comedic expertise to her Mother; Tim Frances is wonderfully oblivious and subtly sinister as Husband; Sam Alexander plays the courtroom with passionate flare; and Daniel Bowerbank's stunning vocals send shivers down our spines.
However, Rosie Sheehy gives the performance of a lifetime as our Young Woman. Every movement, every word, every syllable is so considered and presented with mesmerising frantic energy that unsettles us from the start. Her extraordinary physically-led performance is jarring but deeply moving, and unrelenting for the entirety of the play. She moves through manic monologues with a deep understanding of the text that is rarely so evident, shifting between thoughts, emotions, and memories as if they are popping into her head that very second. This award-worthy performance alone is reason enough to come and see this play (and the reasons only continue to stack up!). 

An utterly impressive and deeply profound evening of theatre, Machinal runs at The Old Vic until 1st June 2024. 

Review: Penny Lane   Photos: Manuel Harlan