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Theatre review: Mr Happiness and The Water Engine 
24th-Jun-2011 10:50 pm
All of a sudden it looks like double bills of short plays are going to be one of 2011's theatrical memes; the National and Finborough are getting in on the act in a couple of months' time, the Young Vic have some Pinter in store and this is already the second Mamet double in a matter of months - I enjoyed the last pairing so decided to give Mr Happiness and The Water Engine a go despite it being at the Old Vic Tunnels, a venue I've not had a great track record with. A new secondary performance space, The Screening Room, is being launched with this production; the shorts were originally radio plays which is perhaps just as well given the new space's poor sightlines.

Mr Happiness is the shorter of the plays, a monologue for a hokey radio agony uncle (David Burt) in 1930s Chicago; Burt is good but the ensemble's shadow-plays illustrating the listeners' problems are a bit unnecessary. Director Kate McGregor has essentially used this as a prologue for the longer The Water Engine, which follows straight on (there's an interval but it's halfway through the second play.) The latter is a fable about Charles (Jamie Treacher) who invents an engine powered entirely by water; unfortunately when he tries to patent it, lawyers and businessmen will stop at nothing to make his invention their own. The way the cast are arranged at the sides of the stage providing sound effects and vocals makes for a more interesting visual here, and the cast includes Lee Drage, which is pleasing - he gets to do some more tromboning in this. What? You're the one with the filthy mind. He's just playing with his instrument.

I'm not sure the reliance on sound effects and music was a good choice in a venue whose acoustics aren't great in the first place: I kind of felt as if the soundscape should have been much more involving than it actually was, and it also drowned out some of the quieter actors, especially Anna Maguire as Charles' sister (was she supposed to be blind? I couldn't quite decide.) It's a weird one, this, there's some nice ideas there and the acting's mostly strong but I couldn't engage with it emotionally in the slightest - it's not just the temperature of the venue that left me cold.

Mr Happiness and The Water Engine by David Mamet is booking until the 9th of July at the Old Vic Tunnels Screening Room.
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