Pros: A brilliantly constructed set is a visually stunning accompaniment to the play.
Cons: The disappointingly clipped nine episode format slows the plot down far too often for its own good.
The Almeida is one of my favourite theatres so I pounced on the opportunity to see Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell. Both play and author were unfamiliar to me; stylistically Treadwell has apparently been compared to Virginia Woolf and is viewed as a leading purveyor of expressionism. The play, written in 1928, was allegedly based on a real life case and concentrates on the domestic drudgery facing women in a world largely dominated by men.
Nine episodes are played out in the life of Helen (Emily Berrington), a bored, unfulfilled stenographer who has caught the eye of office boss George Jones (Jonathan Livingstone). They soon become the subject of office gossip as Helen ponders whether George, marriage or even relationships could possibly be right for her. A fraught conversation with her mother (Denise Black) brings her no closer to resolving the quandary. Despite her doubts she marries George and hopefully embarks on a life of domestic bliss. A child soon follows, but will it provide the glue to hold their marriage together?
The play gets a major boost from an outstanding set designed by Miriam Buether, which replaces the conventional theatre curtain with an electronic shutter screen. The shutters are lined with strip lighting, which in darkness creates the required episodic effect; marking the transition between scenes with the appropriate caption. The back wall and stage ceiling are covered in mirrors for added spatial effect. The first scene is stunning in its simplicity; the shutters create a letter box effect as Helen travels into work on a crowded train. She later joins her co-workers, hamsters on a wheel typing and rubber stamping their lives away. The mirrors effectively provide a 360 degree view of the stage which is extremely rare in the theatre.
Even with an ingenious set it falls some way short of being a great play. Whilst the episodic approach to storytelling may suggest pace it actually has the opposite effect here. Each episode feels like a self-contained playlet and fails to portray a logical sequence of events. Helen appears in every scene but isn’t a recognisable character throughout the story. There seems to be an inconsistency in the script, which isn’t helped by the format slowing the story down to a pedestrian pace. One might question the wisdom of using such a format to tell Helen’s story with her obvious complexities.
There is still much to admire in this production, not least a powerhouse performance from Emily Berrington as Helen and a great turn from the excellent Denise Black as Mother. But Denise is used too sparingly and effectively reduced to a cameo in one scene. The excellent visuals are complemented by a cool selection of blues tunes which never fail to set the mood. However, the play is crying out for more depth and cohesion in the narrative. A good old fashioned two act structure might have made all the difference.
Author: Sophie Treadwell
Director: Natalie Abrahami
Set Design: Miriam Buether
Producer: Almeida Theatre with permission from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson
Box Office: 0207 359 4404
Booking Link: https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/machinal/4-jun-2018-21-jul-2018
Booking until: 21 July 2018