‘Machinal’ – French for ‘mechanical’ – is an expressionist play for adults, by Californian playwright and journalist Sophie Anita Treadwell, who died aged 84, 48 years ago this week. Deserted by her father, Sophie and her mother had a VERY hard life.

Treadwell was also a prolific theatre director and part-time actor, but she was perhaps best known in those exceptionally politically incorrect days, for her partial Mexican heritage and outspoken defence of women’s issues.

The play was first performed in 1931, at the Royal National Theatre in London. It is based on the true story of Ruth Snyder who was executed in 1928 for murdering her husband. This powerful and disturbing 90-minute play continues its revival with this, the West Australian Premiere by the Hayman Theatre Company. Machinal is the closing event of Fringe World Festival 2019 and is a showcase for students studying Theatre Arts at Curtin University.

Operating out of Curtin University’s ‘new’ 80-seat Hayman Theatre, building 302 (shown on campus map as the Davis Building).  Go to the second entrance to car park 9, on Brand Drive off Manning Road entrance in Bentley. The performances are nightly at 7.00 pm until Saturday 23rd February.

The scene is 1922 in America.

Rebecca Penn and her assistant Amber Gilmour’s set comprises a line of one-metre high, matte black daises with industrial welded square mesh, artistically stapled to the front. This décor theme was carried on as a filing wall and a telephone switchboard – most effective and original. A fine set constructed by Nelson Fannon, T ‘Mutta’ Beilby and Stephen Carr. Ella Randle and Emily Bell oversaw the props, and with the careful selection of quality pieces the effect was better than a room full of rubbish. The General Electrical (?) brass candlestick telephone was a rare item, and the busy pub convincing.

The scene changes were carried out by the cast members. Even major items had to be moved, but the slick team were in and out within seconds. Great planning by stage managers Sarah Connelly and Hayley Neil.

Stephen Carr’s lighting design was operated by Chloe Palliser, in close coordination with John Congear’s audio visual design. The effect was outstanding, each time the acting tension came to a climax the lighting seemed to explode followed by a dramatic blackout. Stunning.

The production was managed by Stephen Carr and Jemima Hill

Helen (Amber Gilmour – outstanding) lives with her nagging, overbearing mother (Dylan Dorotich) in a very poor area of town. She cannot even eat what she wants. She has never had a boyfriend and so the presence of men fills her with fear. On the subway, Helen often has to get off before her station, just to avoid the throng in the compartment.
At the office, her workmates – the filing clerk (Jonathan Hoey), the stenographer (Shelby McKenzie), the accountant (Jacob Kotzee) and the telephonist (Gabriella Munro) all mock her innocence, tardiness and general disorganised attitude. As if that is not bad enough, her lecherous boss, Mr Jones (Max Gipson) is drawn to her naivety and insecurity so manipulates her into marriage.
Soon a baby arrives, but even the doctor (Samuel Addison) and the nurse (Chelsea Gibson) have her submitting to their uncaring requests. In her desperate attempt to find ‘someone’ who will care or simply ‘like’ her, Helen goes to a bar with a girlfriend, where they meet a man (Callan Hodge) and his vivacious friend, who works in Mexico (Matthew Arnold). Her life is about to change.

The costumière, Kyra Belford-Thomas, and design consultant Kiri Siva correctly avoided the camiknickers that were starting to go out of date by the mid-20s, instead choosing a silk envelope chemise with the horrendous baggy bloomers.

The fine costumes included a dozen silk dresses, cloche hats, a priest’s cassock and even the aprons worn by the prison guards. Very well researched. Beautifully constructed but Rebecca Penn, Cameron Norton, Emma Hulbert, Chloe Palliser and Bianca Roose. The whole effect was topped off with Lauren Beeton and Amber Gilmour’s hairstyling.

The play has nine, named episodes, each attacking Helen’s fragility a little more. It is therefore essential that they all flow together smoothly in order to keep up the tension. The dialogue is built with short, snappy – often interrupted – sentences, delivered at a cracking pace.

Directed by Teresa Izzard, her assistant director Molly Earnshaw, and with added dramaturg by Cameron Norton and Samuel Ireland, this piece incorporates has a blend of the cast’s ideas. Several acting skills were called upon, such as singing a Spanish love song (muy bien!). The voice coach was Donald Woodburn, with Molly Earnshaw and Dylan Dorotich acting as voice captains. Several actors were required to foxtrot, which they did very well thanks to Gabriella Munro’s choreography. This sounds a minor detail, but few youngsters can do ‘old fashioned’ dancing, or even have the correct timing. Wonderful performances, without a single weak link. Amber Gilmour? Well there is a real talent with a great future.

A VERY powerful production – possibly the first student production that I have given a standing ovation to in decades. A MUST SEE.