Review, Machinal, Ustinov Studio, Bath by James Ellis

Photo credit: Foteini Christofilopoulou

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The unassuming Ustinov Studio in Bath sees a season with acclaimed director Deborah Warner for what should prove to be a highlight of the theatre calendar. Tackling Sophie Treadwell’s blazing play, a guest appearance from another titan Richard Jones directs in his fashionable and sharp way.

Jones’ work I know best through his time with Welsh National Opera and English National Opera, the former’s Olivier winning take on Alban Berg’s Wozzeck fittingly mirrors Machinal. The Yellow Wallpaper of Charlotte Perkins Gilman permeates the space in Hyemi Shin’s angular and claustrophobic set. The hectic ensemble of actors plays multiple roles as commuters, workers, medical staff, drinkers in a bar and more. The energy here is affirming, Treadwell’s musical and punchy lines are tight and in moments are profoundly abstract and true.

Jones knows what he’s doing. Sat in the front row makes for an incredibly heightend encounter. The patter of conversations, arguments, clatter of dishes, screaming and a pounding bulldozer never quite leave your ears, sound design by Benjamin Grant wonderfully also adds to the absolute din of the whole thing. The futility of the whole thing, the sadness seen with this Young Woman who is bludgeoned by all, forced into a marrige she doesnt want, a child she can’t look after and a tragic decision leads to her execution. Loosley based on the real life story of Ruth Brown Snyder, who murdered her husband, begin was the first woman in the US to get the electric chair. One wonders just how many people now and in the past find solace in story, in the play the leading lady stutters, has panic attacks and other anxious bouts.

Rosie Sheehy has given an unforgettable performance in what is not an easy character in anyones eyes. Her spasms, tics, pounding, flinching all add to a well crafted offering. I found it hard not to hear Lois Griffin in her accent, the play capturing the spirt of New York frenzies. Tim Frances as Husband feels compasionate, if complicit in his misogyny, in well acted form. Buffy Davis is the despondent, Irish Mother, some great humour and maternal blathering. The Young Man, whom our lady has a passionate affiar with, is a lovely Pierro Niel-Mee. The character has some flippently racist remarks of the era (1920s), though this one night stand proves a toxic trait, if it saved our lady even just for a few hours. Pierro works as this sort of sexy saviour, chemistry between both actors faired well. Though his betrayal is all to much.

The troupe of actors mesh around the tight stage, accents strong and a well placed aura is in the air. I spoke of energy and their passion, this must be a cracking play to be part of. The framing of each part, sees an actor place a wooden relief of each scenes name to be hung above all, the shadow of which almost mimicking the wings of freedom our lady yearns for.

Machinal runs at the Ustinov Studio till 18th November 2023

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