True story behind an American masterpiece

THE 1920s masterpiece of an almost-forgotten American writer comes to Bath’s Ustinov theatre, from Friday 20th October to Saturday 18th November, as part of Deborah Warner’s new season as artistic director of the Theatre Royal’s studio.

Sophie Treadwell’s extraordinary epic, Machinal, is directed by five-time Olivier Award-winning theatre and opera director Richard Jones. The 12-strong cast includes Rosie Sheehy (Oleanna, RSC), Tim Frances (Roman Holiday, Sister Boniface Mysteries), Buffy Davis (The Archers, Doc Martin) and Pierro Niel-Mee (Slow Horses, Shakespeare in Love).

Deborah Warner says: “It gives me particular pleasure to welcome colleague, friend and master director Richard Jones to the Ustinov. Richard has a long relationship with Machinal and I am delighted he has chosen to premiere his production with us here in Bath.”

In 1927, New York housewife Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray went on trial, accused of the brutal murder of her husband. Sophie Treadwell was one of the dozens of reporters assigned to cover the court case – which proved a sensation. With a ringside seat at proceedings, the 42-year-old journalist, suffragist, playwright and author was inspired to write what became her most famous play, Machinal. Based on the true story of the committal and execution of Ruth Snyder, Treadwell’s provocative drama offers one of the greatest female roles in theatre – challenging, powerful, emotive and poignant.

Rosie Sheehy returns to Bath to play the central role in Machinal after memorably starring in Oleanna at the Ustinov Studio in 2020 and 2021, prior to a celebrated West End run. Rosie has played leading roles at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her previous stage credits include Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the National Theatre; the title role in King John for the RSC; Uncle Vanya for Theatre Clwyd and Sheffield Theatres, for which she won the Best Female Performance in the English Language at the Wales Theatre Awards 2018; Strife at Chichester Festival Theatre; The Hairy Ape at London’s Old Vic and The Whale at the Ustinov in 2018. Her screen credits include BBC’s Steeltown Murders and Call The Midwife, ITV’s Wild Bill and DCI Banks, and Sky’s Chernobyl.

Tim Frances returns for his seventh production at the Theatre Royal Bath, having most recently performed in Roman Holiday this summer. His many West End credits include Witness of the Prosecution, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The 39 Steps, An Inspector Calls and A Man for all Seasons. His screen credits include Sister Boniface Mysteries, Land Girls, The Trial of Christine Keeler, Four Lives and The Day of the Triffids.

Buffy Davis is perhaps best known for her role as Jolene, landlady of The Bull, in nearly 400 episodes of The Archers. Her film credits include The Machinist, Anna Karenina and Hyde Park on Hudson. Her television roles include Pippa Woodley in Doc Martin and Pearl in The Night Manager. Stage appearances include London’s Old Vic, the National Theatre, Young Vic, Wilton’s Music Hall, Plymouth Theatre Royal and Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Pierro Niel-Mee’s has performed at Bath in Deborah Warner’s 2022 production of The Tempest at the Ustinov Studio, and Shakespeare in Love in the Main House in 2018. Other stage credits include Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the RSC. On screen, he has appeared in Slow Horses for Apple TV, BBC’s Casualty and ITV’s Lewis. Other cast members are Wendy Nottingham, Daniel Abelson, Steven Beard, Daniel Bowerbank, Imogen Daines, Carla Harrison-Hodge and Emilio Iannucci.

Sophie Treadwell (1885 – 1970) was an American playwright and journalist. In her lifetime, she wrote at least 39 plays, as well as short stories, articles several novels. She made her name in San Francisco where she went undercover to expose the lack of charitable help for homeless women. In 1915, she became one of the first female war correspondents. Machinal, a masterpiece of expressionist theatre, remains her best-known play. Her other Broadway plays include Lone Valley, Ladies Leave, Gringo, O Nightingale, Plumes in the Dust and Hope for a Harvest.

Machinal received its world premiere in 1928 on Broadway, where it was a huge hit, with a young Clark Gable making his Broadway debut. It had its West End debut three years later under the title The Life Machine, with a strict adults’ only policy, after initially being banned by the Lord Chamberlain. The fascinating case of Ruth Snyder has inspired plays, films, books and songs, including Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, James M Cain’s novel and David Mamet’s screenplay The Postman Always Rings Twice, William March’s The Bad Seeds and Guns‘n’Roses Use Your Illusion albums.

It features in many lists of the greatest plays. In 2015, it was selected by theatre critic Michael Billington in his list of the 101 Greatest Plays in any western language. It was ranked in The Independent’s 2019 selection of the 40 Best Plays of All Time, and Broadway World’s 2020 list of the 101 Greatest Plays of the past 100 years.