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Machinal: Almeida Theatre

July 11, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 27th June 2018)

Another one of those butterflies finally caught in my net, having chased it for years. Fortunately, worth the chase.

First, I’ll plead ignorance. While I recall the lauded National Theatre production of the early 1990s that I never saw (cashflow and academia combining to prevent it), I didn’t in fact realise the age of the play nor real significance of author Sophie Treadwell. Now, though, I see why it is quite so highly regarded as an American classic, and just why Treadwell might have struggled to produce another work quite like it.

I won’t speak of the plot, save to say that a young woman (Emily Berrington) in the 1920s / 1930s works in a typing pool, marries her boss Jones (Jonathan Livingstone) and has a child.

The language is sublime, the construction nigh-on perfect. They combine to suggest that a woman’s life is programmed like a machine. School, work, husband, family. The rhythms of each stage may change – and not for the better as they move from staccato to wail – and her voice grows ever softer, rarely heard unless she takes a decision to lash out.

Director Natalie Abrahami gets the most from her cast, particularly overbearing and oblivious Livingstone and Berrington as she wilts in his lethal glow.

There are lovely performances too from Mother (Denise Black) and Doctor (Andrew Lewis), the pair oblivious to her plight. Nathalie Armin is also notable as a Stenographer and later nurse, and a quick nod for Kirsty Rider’s telephone girl (though she may find it difficult to get a ‘day job’ as one if an employer has caught the show). Neat work too from creepy John Mackay at a table with victim Khali Best.

Why, then, is this a four rather than five star review? Simply, I’m not convinced about the playing with time periods from two thirds of the way through. Until that point, I was visually sure (nice work from Mirian Buether’s simple ‘jaws of life’ set and Robin Fisher’s video, with Jack Knowle’s enthusiastic lighting) that we were watching the original time period.

The decision was taken to begin throwing modern darts once the family was established. Small touches, but it became distracting – or at least divisive. On the one hand, I’m willing to accept that many of the issues in the original play are very valid even now. Against that, the play was already doing a fine job in itself of laying out the issues and achieving recognition of contemporary validity, without having to hammer the fact home by such crass pointers.

Still, it’s a marvellously played and staged revival, served at perfect pace. Worth catching if you can.

4 stars.

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