It’s almost 100 years since Sophie Treadwell’s expressionist play hit the stage, following the real-life events she witnessed as a journalist (though never wrote them up for a newspaper). Instead, she turned the life and death of Ruth Snyder into an explosive drama, an exploration of the human condition and how one woman was tormented by modern life into insanity and murder.

In fact, when we first meet the unnamed Young Woman, she is already clearly fragile, struggling to cope with the crowds on the underground. When she arrives – late again – at the office she is just as clearly the outsider in her ill-fitting blue tea dress among the angular, sharp-suited workers all glib business, malicious gossip and staccato movements (fantastic work from Movement Director Sarah Fahie). Most of the gossip is indeed about her and the interest expressed in her by her boss.

It’s an interest much encouraged by her Irish mother (an excellent Buffy Davis) despite the Young Woman’s horror of the man. The lack of understanding between mother and daughter explodes in a scene that leaves the Young Woman screaming and raging and the Mother cowering beneath a table.

The interest nevertheless evolves into a marriage and the Husband (beautifully played by Tim Frances who speaks entirely in platitudes) takes her on a farce of a honeymoon where she flinches at his touch. And so it continues, the Young Woman oscillating between rage and introversion. Such is her alienation, when she gives birth the nurse, doctors and husband all speak to an empty space rather than to the Young Woman herself, lying on the bed behind them.

The claustrophobia here is tangible. The Old Vic’s grand stage has been reduced by Hyemi Shin to a tapering box, painted a gruesome yellow and almost empty. Props – typewriters, a bar, a bed – are wheeled on and off by the cast who crowd the space, leaving the Young Woman (and the audience) barely able to breathe.

Everything changes when the Young Woman meets the Young Man (Pierro Niel-Mee as a feckless charmer) in a sordid Speakeasy and falls rapturously into his arms. At this point, the stage and audience are plunged into pitch darkness and the lighting returns very slowly to reveal the pair in bed, the Young Woman pathetically grateful for this sexual awakening and clearly foreseeing a changed life ahead.

Of course, this is not what the Young Man has in mind and we see her back with the Husband in their oppressive domestic setting. We know what’s coming and the next scene sees her in court and eventually admitting to the murder of her husband. It’s all building to a prolonged death scene where her hair is cut off, she is kept in a cage, eventually echoing the shocks of the electric chair as she writhes around the walls of the cramped set followed by those who have dogged her through her life.

This is a superb piece of ensemble work with the cast flipping roles with ease and building an atmosphere of deep unease in Richard Jones’s immaculate production. The night belongs, though, to Rosie Sheehy who as the Young Woman gives a tour de force, her rage and misery articulated in an intensely physical performance. Taut and traumatising, Machinal will burn itself into your psyche.

Machinal runs at the Old Vic until 1st June. For more information, and for tickets, please visit