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Mr Happiness and The Water Engine

Wednesday, 15 June, 2011

Playing now till 9 July at the Old Vic Tunnels

Perhaps you’re better at maps than I am, but it took me a couple of wrong turnings before I could find the Old Vic Tunnels. The security staff on the door made it look like a night club, and they weren’t too encouraging about what it was like inside. Dark and damp seemed to sum it up for them.

Actually? Well it certainly was both, with all the atmosphere of a cave below a waterfall, though there were disconcerting rumbles from trains passing overhead too. A great place to do Wagner perhaps.

Still, the staff were encouraging and cheerful. There was a bar and proper toilets, so even if claustrophobia got to you, there were escape routes.

I took my seat early and listened to the odd (live) soundscape stemming from invisible musicians – sax and trombone at a guess. Director Kate McGregor explained in the programme that it was writer David Mamet’s request that all sound effects in the play should be live. This was probably easier to fulfil when these plays were produced – as originally intended – for radio. But here, a multi-talented cast take on musical demands as well as the needs of the atmosphere of the two pieces.

Mr Happiness is a little gem of a piece. An agony uncle – Mr Happiness (played very capably by David Burt) – reads out his replies to his listeners’ questions and in doing so reveals more about himself, and perhaps about the nature of life in 1930’s Chicago than perhaps he intends. There is an attempt here to make this more than a static one-man piece – members of the cast act out elements of the problems in shadow against opaque panels – this doesn’t add too much and if anything is a little distracting, but it hardly matters.

As an audience, we have probably just got used to Mr Happiness when the production slides seamlessly into The Water Engine, which employs the eleven-strong cast to better effect, many of them taking on multiple roles, as well as contributing to musical breaks.

The atmosphere of the tunnels is perhaps more appropriate here, with the rumbles from above reminiscent of industrial machinery and eminently suited to the darker nature of the piece. We move from shop-floors to lifts to offices through the plot, which concerns a hapless inventor, struggling to protect his invention from predatory forces that seem to be everywhere.

Mamet has created a kind of tragic fable in which scenes change quickly and there are lots of characters revolving around the central figure of the inventor, Charles Lang (Jamie Treacher). Director Kate McGregor integrates the music into the action deftly, and moves her characters around with some skill, but unfortunately it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for the put-upon inventor, who seems to be much too shrill and lacking in any kind of charisma. Even his blind sister (Anne Maguire) fails to attract too much in the way of emotion, and the whole thing comes across as too close to a comic strip to be really moving.

Cast and crew are energetic and skilled, and I am always in awe of those who can both act and play music, but that doesn’t really make up for an idea which probably hasn’t enough about it for us to wilfully suspend our disbelief.

If you’re going, please do note that the production starts at 7pm.

Cast: Mensah Bediako – Mailman/Ensemble; Katharine Bennett-Fox – Secretary/Ensemble; David Burt – Mr Happiness/Oberman; Lee Drage – Bernie/Ensemble; Will Harrison-Wallace – Barker/Ensemble; James Hillier – Gross/Ensemble; Timothy Knightly – Murray/Ensemble; Anna Maguire – Rita Lang; Lucy Roslyn – Mrs Verac/Ensemble; Jamie Treacher – Charles Lang; Lawrence Werber – Mr Walker/Ensemble

Director – Kate McGregor; Assistant Directors – Kenneth O’Toole, Jennifer Tang; Sound Design – Godslove Mensah; Musical Director – Maria Haik Escudero; Composer – Kalada Leopold; Lighting – Will Evans; Sets and Costume – Amy Cook, Carla Goodman; Casting – Annie Rowe; Production Manager – Vivienne Clavering; Stage Manager – Katy Munro Farlie

reviewed 14 June 2011

(C) Michael Spring

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