Monday, June 20, 2011

Mr Happiness and The Water Engine at the Old Vic Tunnels

A red on-air light glows in the corner of the stage. This is apt, as both the David Mamet plays in Theatre 6’s double-bill were originally written for radio; what you hear matters as much as what you see in director Kate McGregor’s inventive production, to the point where the method of staging is in some ways more compelling than the plays themselves.

The first, far shorter piece, Mr Happiness is a monologue delivered by a radio agony uncle. He reads out a number of letters – a boy with a limp worries about asking a girl to the prom, a woman asks how best to handle her burdensome mother - and then doles out suitably homespun advice. It’s an incredibly slight thing, made diverting by David Burt’s rich delivery. Behind him silhouetted figures enact scenes from the letters in an attempt to inject movement into an essentially static piece, but this is a somewhat unnecessary addition as Burt’s voice is textured enough on its own.

McGregor’s production acknowledges the play’s thinness; it’s used as a taster, the newsreel before the man feature. The switch between plays is elegantly handled, a smooth transition. Instead of shoe-horning in an interval, the back wall of the set is wheeled away to reveal the industrial setting of the second play.

The Water Engine is set in 1930s Chicago in the year of the World Fair. Inventor Charles Lang has created an engine that runs on water. Aware of its potential to revolutionise the world, he attempts to get it patented, but immediately becomes the target for a pair of ruthless lawyers willing to stop at nothing to get their hands on his plans. If it sounds formulaic, it is – this is not Mamet’s strongest work - though his characteristically taut dialogue gives it a real sense of urgency.

The two pieces are stylistically linked, with radio advertisements and smooth wireless voices running though the second play. Foley sound effects and live music had to this effect; this is particularly effective when Lang’s invisible engine is fired up, the clunks and clanks, the grinding of gears, the generator hum, all come together to create a sense of the mechanical: the whole set seems to shudder.  The venue itself add to this; the plays are performed in The Screening Room, a new space within the warrens of the Old Vic Tunnels and the sound of trains rumbling into Waterloo Station overhead is echoed by the clatter of footsteps on the raised stage. In several places water drips from the ceiling which is thematically apt if probably not intentional. Though evocative as this all is, the music occasionally starts to become repetitious, with the lone saxophone motif particularly coming to feel overused.

The cast give solid performances, with Jamie Treacher displaying an engaging everyman quality as Lang; at first he bucks against the situation in which he finds himself, desperately seeking a way out, but eventually he seems to resign himself to the way things must end. David Burt, in a neat juxtaposition to his avuncular radio host, returns as the more threatening of the two lawyers, a mobster figure, menacing and icy. There’s something very neat about the way the second play eventually picks up the themes of the first, and their pairing comes to make more sense as the idea of human connection and communication offers Lang a way out, providing a sense of continuation, a light at the end of the Tunnels as it were.

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