‘This prescient masterpiece submerges us in a frantic, visceral nightmare’: MACHINAL – Almeida Theatre ★★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews, Sticky by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

Almeida Theatre, London - until 21 July 2018 MICHAEL ADAIR SHUDDERS AT THE HARD OLD PATRIARCHY… ‘These modern neurotic women, doctor. What are we going to do with them?’ says one exasperated male character to another. Here, right on time for the #MeToo generation, is a revival of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal… first performed in 1928.  90 years on, some men are still making our skin crawl, and Natalie Abrahami's superb direction of this prescient masterpiece submerges us in a frantic, visceral nightmare. This is a play about Helen, played by the hypnotic Emily Berrington. Helen works as a stenographer in New York. She lives beneath a noisy train track in a tiny apartment with her impoverished mother (Denise Black) until her employer, Mr Jones (Jonathan Livingstone), takes a shine to her. Why? Because Helen has such lovely hands, of course. Despite Helen wincing every time that her oblivious boss touches her, the two wed and she despondently sobs throughout their honeymoon. Mr Jones doesn’t care. Mr Jones barely notices. Mr Jones wants to sit with his legs spread telling his beautiful wife his anecdotes, he reasons that he’s worked hard so he should be allowed to enjoy his life. At one point he even dares to utter ‘I understand women’. Although the subject matter wrings your stomach, as a visual spectacle this is an utterly beautiful play to watch. There is ceaseless cacophony of sound – the thud of metal doors and bins, the relentless grind of typewriters and pneumatic drills, even the repetitive 8-bit bleeps of a child’s Gameboy helps to build a wall of noise that surrounds us, imprisoning us with our protagonist. The rhythmic, breathless dialogue matches it – clicking back and forth as if set to a metronome. All of the music and sound effects are perfectly chosen and placed, huge credit to Ben and Max Ringham for Sound and Composition.  The set by Miriam Buether matches this. A slanted mirror takes up the entire back of the stage  – we see everything in double, further adding to the claustrophobia. Each of the story’s nine chapters is separated by an increasingly blinding light. It’s not all hell and nightmares though. As Helen seeks to escape from the shackles of a husband she never loved and the straitjacket of social convention, she heads to a bar. As the stage becomes filled with cigarette smoke, we become privy to the conversations of other couples – one pair are negotiating an affair, whilst an older man is extolling the virtues of amontillado sherry to a younger man in a bid to seduce him. It’s a heady mix of sight, sound and smell that serves to seduce the audience themselves – and in this midst, Helen, in a grasp for freedom, begins an affair. In its aftermath, the mechanical noises temporarily ease away and are replaced by the soothing patter of rainfall, the claustrophobic mirror suddenly seems to reflect a limitless night sky. This is a brilliantly crafted work, where the biggest plaudits must go to those involved in the technical production. Urgent and compelling, it is remarkable that Treadwell’s work is as relevant now as it would have been 90 years ago.   BOX OFFICE  020 7359 4404 TO JULY 21 boxoffice@almeida.co.uk RATING   FOUR        
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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.