Saturday 2nd July, matinée
If the Offies ever decide to have a category for ‘creepiest venue’, the Old Vic Tunnels will win hands down. It’s got everything from a concealed entrance, a musty smell to rival the London Dungeon and actual dripping water on the bare brick walls. Finding this place would test the skills of Indiana Jones, in fact the interior wouldn’t look amiss in one of his movies, perhaps the temple of doom. The toilet doors have signs made of lego which appear to depict aliens wearing nappies – surely this is taking multiculturalism a bit too far.
If director Kate McGregor was looking for an atmospheric venue for this double-bill of early Mamet plays set in 1930s Chicago, she certainly found it.
The first, Mr Happiness, is a short monologue in which a fictional radio agony uncle goes through his weekly post-bag. David Burt has a face for radio – he captures every nuance of this archetypal character, with a smooth yet expressive radio voice which he uses to great effect. One man at a desk with a microphone and a pile of letters may not seem very dramatic, but the tension and slight air of menace builds as we go from positive, reassuring responses to outright anger, exasperation and finally a lecture on moral responsibility. Mr Happiness never quite loses his temper, but the intensity of feeling, no doubt from years of letters from people wanting ‘permission’ for their immoral choices, is palpable.
As Burt exits, the space immediately opens up to reveal the set for the second play, ‘The Water Engine’. Written in 1976, the play speculates on what might happen if someone were to invent an engine which ran on water. The story has a real-life inspiration which you can find out more about from Keelynet. Originally written as a radio play, Kate McGregor’s staging uses a combination of vintage props and skilful mime. This adds to the surreal quality of Mamet’s play and possibly helps to re-create the sense of a radio play where we have to do more of the work. We are never quite sure what is real and what is imaginary, and with many cast members doubling up the sense of disorientation increases. Mamet cleverly interweaves the main story with excerpts from chain letters, alternating snippets of the obligatory ‘good’ and ‘bad’ luck stories that have befallen people. Add to this the backdrop of the annual science fair and we have a sense of order and randomness battling it out in front of us. By the way if you are interested in how chain letters really work, have a look here.
It is hard to believe that such an early work shows Mamet’s craft so well advanced. All the elements that we have come to admire are here – a fascination with the art of the improbable, deception of both audience and characters, and a world of chance where no-one can be trusted, all delivered with an economy of style that is evident in this production. Jamie Treacher was particularly engaging as the young inventor Charles Lang. Meanwhile the multi-talented cast turn their hand to banjos, trombones and piano, as well as creating the water engine itself from sound effects. We enjoyed Will Harrison-Wallace’s cameo as the chatty museum curator, and Lee Drage as the budding boy engineer.
It is only at the end of the evening that we can appreciate how well these two plays complement each other. Mr Happiness deals with the propensity for human beings to look for happiness in the wrong places, and the Water Engine explores whether there could ever be a discovery that would make society happier.
It is ironic that this work is being aired just as Mamet announces his renunciation of liberalism and embraces the free-market economics this play so cleverly deconstructs. Does he mind? Perhaps he is just happy to take the money and run.