Tag Archives: Sophie Treadwell

“Machinal” at the Old Vic Theatre

After an acclaimed run in Bath, this revival of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play comes to London. It’s a confrontational piece based on the execution of Ruth Snyder, who killed her husband in his sleep. The stylised script, described as Expressionist, is matched by Richard Jones’ direction and is unquestionably memorable. But a word of warning: the play is a challenge and at times downright unpleasant.

Treadwell’s version of Snyder is called Helen and is quite a puzzle. She’s super-sensitive to touch and noise and mentions smells more than once. She reacts violently to stimuli with physical spasms. Taking the lead, Rosie Sheehy gives a suitably intense performance that is easy to admire. It’s a mammoth, exhausting role that will surely, deservedly, earn award nominations. The depiction is visceral, but it is also oppressive.

Through a series of (literally titled) scenes, we see Helen’s desperation at home and her unhappy marriage. Then there’s a one-night stand that she reacts to with unexpected passion but characteristic ferocity. The character is clearly ill, but it’s left to the audience to try to work out how – and to question how much sympathy to have for her. Treadwell’s career as a journalist might help here. Is she somehow trying to present events objectively?

Tim Francis and Rosie Sheehy in Machinal at the Old Vic
Tim Francis and Rosie Sheehy

Other roles are small, but strong performances make them memorable. Helen’s lover and husband, Pierro Niel-Mee and Tim Francis respectively, are excellent. They don’t quite know what to make of Helen either! The performance from Buffy Davis, as Helen’s mother, is more complex. As with those Helen meets at work or within the legal system, characters have a deliberate flatness and are occasionally comic, which makes you wonder: are we seeing the world all through Helen’s eyes?

The large cast works in a small space, Hyemi Shin’s set makes the stage tiny, so that Jones’ staging is hugely accomplished. All the movement (credited to Sarah Fahie) is controlled – mannered and alienated – while Adam Silverman’s superb lighting design creates yet more claustrophobia through spooky shadows and a lot of strobes.

It all grates. Of course, that’s the point. And theatre doesn’t just entertain. Jones and his committed cast take tremendous efforts to discomfit us (and nearly two hours without a break makes sure of this). Sheehy really is remarkable, and there are moments in Machinal that made my skin crawl. It’s an achievement, of sorts, but not one for all tastes.

Until 1 June 2024


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Garry” at the White Bear Theatre

Graham Watts’ quality production of this neglected play by Sophie Treadwell is a tough one to write about. That this world premiere is 65 years late indicates the unjust difficulties its author faced. It’s important to see more work by this great woman writer. And to see the topics of homosexuality, sexual violence and prostitution dealt with in such an early work is fascinating. But while it’s an admirable labour of love for Watts as director and producer, the play has missed its moment.

The titular lead, played with gusto by Thomas Martin, is so tormented by his homosexuality that he kills a man who picks him up in a hotel room. In a nice twist, the focus is really his sham marriage with the naïve Wilma who, having failed in her quest to ‘save’ Garry, still wants to stand by him. It’s Wilma’s play and the part makes a true starring role for Phebe Alys, who is terrific throughout. But while the piece doesn’t lack dramatic potential, the psychology offered is basic and setting out its scenario is so laboured that the play shows its age.

So, while the subject matter is bold, the show lacks tension. There’s no flaw on the part of Watts and the cast. It’s just that everything is spelled out too clearly and is predictable anyway. Garry’s status as a “punk” feels quaint – it’s only when he starts explaining his “flashes of hate” that he becomes scary. Wilma is too much the innocent abroad, although Alys is superb at reflecting how her husband being “afraid inside” becomes contagious. But both characters contain so little self-awareness that they fail to convince. The supporting characters (again, nicely played by Claire Bowman and Matthew Wellard) inject some questioning cynicism but only act as foils and are similarly flat and repetitive.

Treadwell’s skills are clear and considerable: the play’s structure is precise and there’s an impressive amount of action squeezed into one room. But, in pushing its 1950s audience, too much has to be explained and we end up with no surprises. As much as some bigots might like it, we no longer need to spell out the very idea of homosexuals existing. What’s going on with Garry is all too obvious at every step and much of the play’s shocks and twists are clear too early. The piece might be important and interesting history, but it isn’t one for today.

Until 22 June 2019


Photo by Ali Wright