Review: Mr Happiness and The Water Engine @ Old Vic Tunnels
This David Mamet double bill, presented by Theatre6, is performed in the brand new space within the Old Vic Tunnels, the Screening Room, and is both witty and poignant, set against an atmospheric backdrop.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet’s classic plays are both directed by Kate McGregor, adding immediate connections and a sense of consistency to the productions. Originally written as radio plays, theatre and radio are consequently combined in the transfer from Mr Happiness into The Water Engine.
The show opens with the 25 minute monologue, Mr Happiness, introducing the evening’s constant themes of links and trust within society. As an old-school American agony-uncle of Old Time Radio, Mr Happiness receives numerous letters every week sent to Chicago, home of the world’s biggest post office. Mr Happiness works to solve problems from across the country, injecting dry humour – and at times exasperation – into his replies. Although unclear at first, the importance of the postal system is later revealed in The Water Engine, where the message “all people are connected” is really driven home.
Olivier Award-nominated David Burt plays Mr Happiness and later becomes a subtle driving force in The Water Engine, manipulating protagonist Charles Lang (Jamie Treacher) throughout the production. This radio thriller presents Lang as a young and perhaps overly trusting inventor, having created an engine that runs solely on water. To protect both his engine and his sister Rita (Anna Maguire), Lang must overcome lawyers and police to give his machine to the world.
Specific to the production, Theatre6 boasts live sound effects as one of Mamet’s personal requests, remaining true to authentic, live radio work. The ensemble has much to be praised for and the sound effect artists add much grounding and realism to the work. Live instruments were used for fixed musical motifs and also as percussive tools, developing the atmosphere and bringing the water engine to life. The experiments used to create authentic sounds paid off, demonstrating the versatility and talent of the performers, taking on two or three roles within a short time period.
The importance of the delicate balance between science and faith is just one of the conclusions that could be drawn when departing from the Tunnels. Attracting awareness or being anonymous was also a key element running throughout the dialogue. This reminded the audience of just how relevant these realistic works are today, considering sustainable energy and corrupt systems, and working towards a greater good.
The Screening Room at the Old Vic Tunnels is programmed and run entirely by the Old Vic Tunnels volunteers, opening up creation for young people and providing numerous opportunities. This particular production has seen volunteer roles in casting, set design, production, assistant directing and sound/music design. Since February 2010, the Old Vic Tunnels has worked with over 800 young adults and provided 32 internships with no age limit or previous experience requirements. This alone demonstrates a promising message for smaller voices, perhaps something Charles Lang would have welcomed.
Mr Happiness and The Water Engine runs until 9 July. For information on how to volunteer at the venue, visit www.oldvictunnels.com/volunteers/
Jessica Wilson TheatreFix Reviewer