'Machinal' review — Rosie Sheehy’s restless, urgent performance is astonishing

Read our four-star review of Machinal, written by Sophie Treadwell and based on the 1928 execution of Ruth Snyder, now in performances at the Old Vic to 1 June.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

In an era of true crime podcasts and documentaries, now feels like the perfect time to revive Sophie Treadwell’s Expressionist play Machinal. Loosely based on the sensational execution of Ruth Snyder, an American woman who killed her husband and was sentenced to death by the electric chair in 1928, the play offers a nuanced view on what could drive an ordinary woman to commit such a crime.

Rosie Sheehy’s performance is an astonishing feat. Her character, Young Woman, who we later learn is called Helen, is restless, her voice urgent, swinging from staccato, repetitive thoughts that tumble out of her mind to wild and desperate outbursts, like those of a caged animal — which is made literal during the play’s penultimate scene.

Daniel Bowerbank and Rosie Sheehy Machinal 1200 LT credit Manuel Harlan

Sheehy does not play Helen as a sympathetic character. She is unsettling and, despite the frequent insights into her mind, hard to get close to. Yet this does not undermine the tragedy that surrounds her life and death. The suffocating effects of patriarchy are felt in every scene, from the monotonous pace of domestic, married life, signalled by the deafening tick of a clock, to the cluster of men who surround her catatonic body in the hospital following the delivery of her child.

She is often made voiceless, which is effectively captured during the hospital when she lets out a silent scream as her body tremors in response to a man aggressively drilling downstage. Adam Silverman’s clever lighting design darkens to show the experience is internal and unseen by those around her. Her pain is ignored, even by the female nurse who breezily insists “Aren’t you glad it’s a girl?”

Sheehy’s young woman also has an intense fixation with hands: her own, delicate and attractive, and those of her husband, which she imagines wandering lasciviously over her body. Tim Frances impresses in the honeymoon scene as Helen’s cheery, yet lecherous husband, who treats her like a doll perched on his knee and paws at her grotesquely.

Rosie Sheehy and the Company in Machinal 1200 LT credit Manuel Harlan

The rest of the ensemble is also strong. In their hands, Treadwell’s rhythmic writing becomes a soundscape, a chorus of repeated words and phrases that sometimes come to resemble the endless grind of a machine.

Richard Jones’s taut production has transferred from an intimate studio space at Theatre Royal Bath to the Old Vic’s expansive auditorium, yet Hyemi Shin’s stylised set design continues to artfully capture the Young Woman’s suffocating existence. Lurid, yellow walls add a sickly, forced brightness to the space, and Sheehy creeps along the edges, as if searching for her way out. She lifts blinds and peers out of windows that open on to nothing, commenting “It’s stifling,” to which her husband dismissively replies, “You don’t breathe deep enough.”

While this accomplished production slightly slackens during Helen’s amorous love affair with the man from the bar (Pierro Niel-Mee), the pace resumes full speed in the closing scenes, when she becomes increasingly desperate and finds her voice too late.

The final image of the ensemble stood in a row, blocking her from view as an electric charge courses through them to her body, saves Helen from the indignity given to Ruth Snyder in her final moments, as a photographer captured the moment of her death. But the effect here is just as haunting.

Book Machinal tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Rosie Sheehy as Helen Jones, the "Young Woman" in Machinal at the Old Vic in London. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy