Review: Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, Old Vic Tunnels

“The mind of man is less perturbed by a mystery he cannot explain than by an explanation he cannot understand”

I’ve had something of a varied history in the Old Vic Tunnels since it opened early last year: exciting immersive experiences and one of the worst productions conceivable – I still can’t look at a watering can the same way… And since opening last year, it continued to develop as a performing space, making varied use of the atmospheric arches, and they have now opened up The Screening Room, a brand-new 125-seater space both programmed and run by a team of volunteers to showcase the ‘new’ and offer training and experience in all aspects of theatre creation. The first show mounted here is a double bill of David Mamet radio plays, Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, presented by Theatre6 and MokitaGrit.

The first, short, piece is a one-man-show, David Burt starring as a radio show host playing at agony uncle, reading out letters and dispensing frank advice to his listeners’ personal problems. Silhouettes on the bookshelves behind him enact some of the scenes which adds an extra layer which isn’t strictly necessary as Burt’s sonorous voice and expressive face are more than plenty to guide us through the tangled concerns with a soft but matter-of-fact humour.

As we slide straight into the second play with the help of a beautifully harmonised rendition of the Illinois State song and the whisking away of the shelves to reveal the full depth of the stage, it is clear that The Water Engine is going to be something different. Inventor Charles Lang, played with great earnest by Jamie Treacher, has created an engine which runs on water for fuel. Aware of the need to secure the patent for his invention and dreaming of a better life for himself and his sister, he underestimates just how devious big business and their lawyers can be.

The full ensemble is involved here, not just in playing the many small parts around this main narrative, but also in the creation of the full 1930s bustling soundscape of the show. Musical interludes abound, with sax, banjo, trombone, piano all being utilised and sound effects and amplified voices coming from all around, slamming drawers and rattling phones being the most visible and making explicit the connection here between radio and theatre. The sax playing did get a little Lisa Simpson for me, getting a little bit repetitive for my liking and when the music was underscoring vocal performances, the balance was not always 100% in the echoey chamber, though largely atmospheric.

Burt shone again as one of the devious lawyers, barely concealing the malevolence behind his smile, Timothy Knightley’s journalist and Lee Drage’s appealingly innocent Bernie also impressing, all dealing with ease with Mamet’s customary stylised dialogue. The way in which the connections are drawn between the two pieces, which slowly come into view, is neatly done, this isn’t Mamet’s most sophisticated work to be sure, but there’s a simplicity to the emotion behind the writing that really works.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50 (and well worth it for the tons of content within: it puts many a West End programme to shame)
Booking until 9th July

2 Replies to “Review: Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, Old Vic Tunnels”

  1. Nice review, it was basically raining in the night we saw it but it added to the atmosphere and general feel of the second show. Deserves a bigger audience though.

  2. I think the female actors deserve more mention – their cameos were all gems – particularly liked the comic timing of Katharine Bennett-Fox.

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