“Tell me ma…something…somebody”
I’ve not had the opportunity to see Sophie Treadwell’s Expressionistic classic Machinal so when a Guildhall School production appeared on my radar, I seized the chance. Seeing drama school shows also provides that elusive chance of seeing stars in the making – a production of The Last Five Years I caught here in 2010 featured the fresh young faces of Freddie Fox and Lily James. Treadwell’s 1928 play though has an extraordinary power in its searing exploration of a woman’s struggle against accepted notions about marriage and motherhood in a society defined by men and in Edward Dick’s staging here with 18 members of the final year actors, the narrative expands to encompass women’s experiences more generally.
Each taking their turn to don a distinctive red curly wig to take on the role of Young Woman in the nine scenes of the play, Amber James, Elaine Fellows, Rebecca Lee, Katrina McKeever, Emma Naomi, Marina Bye, Alice Winslow, Emily-Céline Thomson and Charlie Bate all made their own impressions in their own way on this character inspired by Ruth Snyder, a US housewife convicted and executed for the murder of her husband. Amber James’ anguish at the end of the day in the stenographer’s office, Alice Winslow’s downtrodden wife and Emily-Céline Thomson’s crumbling defendant stood out for me but what was impressive was the way in which the performances of the nine actors managed cohere into a powerful single entity whilst still differentiating themselves.
This also lent itself to the production’s most powerful moment in the final scene as the previous eight incarnations surrounded the cell in which #9 awaited her capital punishment. It was a visual coup de grâce that Anna Watson’s lighting picked out beautifully in the stark cage of Jamie Vartan’s design whose endless flexibility allowed for effective changes from episode to episode (the hard-working stage management team deserve a mention here too). The ominous rumblings of Andy Taylor’s sound design also fit the mood perfectly, with the clattering clamour of the opening scene a work of aural art in itself. An assuredly professional production of a most intriguing play.