Thrilling Exposition of Expressionistic Theatre


“Love! What does that mean?  

Will it clothe you?   . . .feed you?   . . .pay the bills?



Rosie Sheehy as Young Woman (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

In January 1928 an American woman was executed by Electric Chair in Sing Sing prison, New York.  Immediately afterwards her lover was executed in the same Electric Chair.  They were both accused of murdering her abusive and bullying husband and gave evidence against each other.  People were invited to watch the executions but no photographers were permitted.  A reporter taped a miniature plate camera to his ankle and pressed the cable button at the point at which Ruth Snyder was electrocuted. The photograph is shocking.

Present at Ruth Snyder’s trial was journalist and playwright, Sophie Treadwell, who wrote Machinal in response which premiered on Broadway in September 1928.   Treadwell’s play is not a biographical account of Ruth Snyder’s life but was inspired by her.  Treadwell’s protagonist is called Young Woman played by a star in the making, Rosie Sheehy.

Treadwell described Machinal as “the story of a woman. . .an ordinary young woman, any woman.” Machinal means mechanical referring to the way in which the Young Woman is swept along into a pattern of poverty, abuse, childbirth, post natal depression, isolation and desperation, like a machine ignoring her humanity.

To Business (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Richard Jones returns as director to the Old Vic where he directed Rosie Sheehy, straight out of drama school, as Mildred Doudlas  in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in 2015.  Jones production is astonishingly visual and expressionistic with some shadow dominated scenes set against a bright yellow background.  Each scene has a metal graphic set on black lines with title scene like AT HOME or TO BUSINESS and these scene changes are physically taken down and substituted by the cast with fluidity.  The designer is Hyemi Shin but the yellow and monochrome designs also featured in Richard Jones’ Hairy Ape

We see workers jammed together, travelling on the Subway to work.  The scene in the Office is very crowded with a switchboard, typewriters, stenographers and clerks.  The images are very stylish and attention grabbing.  Young woman wears a cheap blue cotton floral frock and is called in to take dictation from Mr J (Tim Frances) and it is obvious to all that his motives are sexual.  Mr J and the Young Woman’s ages are at least 25 years apart. There is jealousy from the other women in the Business.  They call Mr J “the Worm” and they speculate, “Do You Think She’ll Marry Him?”

At Home Buffy Davis as Mother and Rosie Sheehy as Helen Young Woman (Photo: Foteini Chistofilopoulou)

At Home, we see the Young Woman with her Mother (Buffy Davis) and the mother can only see the financial security the marriage might bring.  The Young Woman dreams that she might not have to get up so early to go to work but she also mentions love. 

The cogs of the machine are trapping her into the marriage, a honeymoon and in the scene called MATERNAL, pregnant, she writhes on the hospital maternity bed while a cast member operates a mechanical, pneumatic drill causing her to repeatedly convulse. 

Tim Frances as Husband, Wendy Nottingham as Stenographer and Rosie Sheehy as Young Woman. (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Alcohol, a one night meeting with a lover, the Young Man (Pierro Niel-Mee) and the decision to end her abusive marriage lead to her trial.  Interestingly the Young Man was played on Broadway in 1928 by Clark Gable.  We see her defence lawyer (Daniel Abelson) and her cross examination by the Prosecution lawyer (Sam Alexander).  The court case has strobe lights like the repeated flash of cameras and the house lights go on to focus on what has been allowed to happen.  Exaggeratedly tall shadows are a sinister presence.  We see the cruel end.

For a play written 96 years ago we can see issues that are relevant today in employment and marriage and these are beautifully played out in movement by Sarah Fahle. The ensemble acting is really excellent and I particularly liked the Telephone Girl (Carla Harrison-Hodge).  This superb play was developed between the Ustinov Studio Bath and the Old Vic. 

Rosie Sheehy is absolutely remarkable in the expressive physicality of her emotional  response as the Young Woman whom we later learn is called Helen.  And it is the exceptional direction of Richard Jones which has created this sure to be nominated Best Actress performance.   I recommend you book now as this exciting production is attracting all ages of theatregoer. 

Rosie Sheehy as Young Woman and cast (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Production Notes


Written by Sophie Treadwell

Directed by Richard Jones



Rosie Sheehy



Buffy Davis

Carla Harrison-Hodge

Daniel Abelson

Emilio Iannucci

Imogen Daines

Pierro Niel-Mee

Sam Alexander

Steven Beard

Tim Frances

Wendy Nottingham

Daniel Bowerbank


Director: Richard Jones

Set Designer: Hyemi Shin

Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman

Sound Designer: Benjamin Grant

Costume Design: Nicky Gillibrand

Movement: Sarah Fahle


Running Time: One hours 50 minutes without an interval

Booking to 1st June 2024


Old Vic

The Cut


London SE1 8NB

Tube/Rail : Waterloo

Telephone: 0344 871 7628


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge

at the Old Vic

at the performance 

on 26th April 2024