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Machinal at the Old Vic: A stunning performance in a tired play

There are surprisingly few genre plays on the West End stage – where are all the science fiction and fantasy and horror and gangster stories that dominate other areas of pop culture? And where is all the true crime, a format you can barely escape from on streaming and podcast platforms?

The Old Vic brings one of the most famous examples of theatrical true (ish) crime to its stage in this semi-fictionalised take on the real life murder of magazine editor Albert Snyder by his wife Ruth in 1927.

It was the OJ Simpson trial of its day, creating a media frenzy, not least because someone illicitly photographed Ruth at the moment of electrocution following her conviction for the murder. Journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell attended the trial and adapted her experience into Machinal, first performed in 1928 and starring a young Clark Gable. Hailed as a masterpiece, it was a free-flowing, expressionistic examination of the societal pressures faced by women – the small humiliations and petty drudgery – that pushed Ruth to commit such a terrible act.

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After this version of the play premiered at the Theatre Royal Bath, Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus called Rosie Sheehy’s lead performance a piece of “theatre history” – six months later, it’s up and running at his own theatre. But while I agree Sheehy’s performance is sensational, I’m less convinced this is an exceptional production, or that the play has stood the test of time particularly well.

Machinal begins with Ruth turning up late to work, again, after suffering a panic attack on the train. Her much older boss immediately calls her into his office and, off-stage, sets about the kind of behaviour that was passed off as heavy-handed flirting in the 1920s and would be called sexual assault today. He eventually proposes to her and, because she’s poor and emotional happiness was seen as an impossible luxury, she accepts, despite her overriding impression of him being how disgusted she is by his “fat hands”.

We then scroll through a series of vignettes from her life: their first night together; her postpartum depression following the birth of her daughter; a desperate love affair with a handsome stranger; her trial. Sheehy is an incredible physical actor, contorting her body – sometimes violently convulsing – to reflect her emotional trauma. There are times when the fabric of the play itself seems to collapse, with Ruth speaking in a kind of emotionally wrought beat poetry.

It’s incredibly stylised, all taking place on a claustrophobic little set, with title cards manually hoisted above the stage for each section. There are consistencies with director Richard Jones’s previous work, especially his 2015 version of The Hairy Ape, with similarly stark lighting and lurid splashes of colour. They also share a staccato rhythm, with the surprisingly large cast speaking over one another in carefully choreographed bouts of wordplay.

But I can’t help feeling I’ve seen all this before, only better. Last year both All of It at the Royal Court and Little Scratch at Hampstead Theatre tackled similar themes in a similarly expressionistic way but weren’t hamstrung by the period nature of the material. It feels like Jones is forever striving to make this story of a 1920s trial feel universal and contemporary, only to be dragged back into the past by the play itself. It’s not bad, by any means, and at under two hours straight through it’s mercifully slight, but “theatre history”? I’m not so sure.

Machinal is on at the Old Vic is on until 1 June