There is an infamous photograph of American murderer ‘Ruthless Ruth' Snyder taken in 1928 which became the first known image of a death by electrocution at New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison.

Her horrific death in January, 1928 inspired many plays, films, books and songs, but the first was penned by American journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell, whose Expressionist play Machinal is being given a revival premiere at Bath’s Ustinov Studio.

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 sensational court case.

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.

Director Richard Jones is lucky to have Rosie Sheehy in the lead role in the extraordinarily epic masterpiece, giving a powerful physical and highly emotional performance as the unnamed young woman.

Sheehy is an astounding theatrical talent, and by the end of the 110-minute production looks to be physically and psychologically drained by her efforts with numerous bruises evident on her arms and legs.

She magnificently portrays an office stenographer trapped by her role in society, torn between wanting a better life and having to look after her mother.

She is repelled by the touch of her businessman husband and only experiences real love after meeting a young man in a speakeasy bar.

Their common bond is wanting freedom and it is this that leads her to murder her husband and the father of her daughter by hitting him over the head while he’s sleeping.

Tim Frances plays her boring husband with a blandness which provides a stark contrast to the emotional turmoil within his wife, and Pierro Niel-Mee is excellent as the young man who leads her to betray her marriage vows.

The young woman’s mother is played by Buffy Davis, who gives a sterling performance in a largely cameo role. The cast is completed by Daniel Abelson, Sam Alexander, Steven Beard, Daniel Bowerbank, Imogen Daines, Carla Harrison-Hodge, Emilio Iannucci and Wendy Nottingham.

The set design by Hyemi Shin is stark and non-realistic, with the actors literally pirouetting around office desks in the typing pool or dancing in the speakeasy bar.

Bright yellow walls have long shadows thrown across them and a simple plank indicates the speakeasy bar top. A bed  indicates a honeymoon and a mattress on the floor her meeting her lover in his one-room apartment.

One-word props hanging from wires convey the different scenes, such as Business, Honeymoon, Domestic and Intimate, before the young woman is quite literally forced into a cage prior to sitting on the electric chair.

Sound designer Benjamin Grant overlays the scenes with jarring noise to create a sense of alarm and intrusion, while Richard Jones draws on Machinal’s Expressionist roots to create his chillingly modern revival.

Sensitively directed, Machinal is sparse yet shocking in its depiction, particularly at the end when the actors line up to become conductors of the electricity that ends the young woman’s life.

Machinal appears at the Ustinov Studio in Bath to Saturday, November 18 as part of the 2023/2024 Deborah Warner Season. Tickets are on sale at the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 and online at