Saturday 2 July 2011

Glints of darkness and swamping sound

Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, Old Vic Tunnels, London

Holed away in some underground archives, Mr Happiness is doling out his heart-warming advice to his heavy-hearted radio listeners. Mr Happiness’ solution is the same every time: have faith in love and remember to listen to your friends. Yet despite Mr Happiness’ insistence on the links that bind us, he sits alone in a darkened room, addressing an audience he will never see and friends he will never know.

It is a clever conceit from David Mamet, who originally penned Mr Happiness and The Water Engine as radio plays and intended the two to be played consecutively. The first, less complex and less cluttered play, is by far the better. David Burt’s Mr Happiness is a soft-hearted hack, whose voice might be sparky but whose spirit seems heavy. As Mr Happiness rattles through his requests, doling out simple solutions for sophisticated scenarios, his almost guilty giggles blanket over any doubt he might feel about his hackneyed catchphrases.

Glints of darkness begin to peep through the sunshine suggestions. Against Mr Happiness’ shelves, packed with unanswered dilemmas, silhouettes of the listeners’ scenarios materialise. A lady calls in, caught between stealing some money and losing her husband and as she speaks, the couple’s image floats behind the shelves. As Mr Happiness offers his remedy the couple’s silhouette is snuffed out, their dilemma dismissed with an all too easy one-liner.

As Mr Happiness rushes to the end of his show, his suggestions grow ever more abrupt. ‘Mistreated? I don’t want to hear about it!’ Burt’s otherwise velvety voice takes on a flinty edge and his impatience for human frailty flares up. The crushing impact of a life of one-sided dialogue occasionally escapes this piece and these slips are ugly, interesting moments.

The Water Engine is a much more theatrically complicated affair; a restless tableau of life in 1930s Chicago, in which the central story is almost completely swallowed by the surrounding fuss and noise. Theatre 6 pride themselves on injecting their shows with live music, but the jamming often drowns out the good stuff. It also adds a sheen of artificiality where there should not be one. At one point, inventor Charles Lang hands his sister a banjo and prompts her to play us out into the interval. There will need to be much more integration (and some better musicians, alas) if this element of Theatre 6’s productions is going to prove useful.

These indulgent musical interludes are reflective of a show with slightly skewed priorities. Director Kate McGregor has taken great pains to ensure a bell rings every time Charles Lang rushes through a shop door, on the run from some lawyers keen to steal his plans, yet other and more vital elements are all but ignored. Two lines of telephone operators flank the side of the Screening Room stage, but their roles change frequently and it’s often hard to tell who or what they represent. There is a sparky moment when Charles Lang finally reveals his working motor and the two lines of workers crank into life, embodying the parts of a fearsome machine. Yet, even at this heightened moment of symbolism, the workers still seem to have human traits as they check to see why their phones aren’t working.

Repeatedly, we are left asking the wrong kind of questions. Is this a moment of symbolism or is this realistic? Is Charles Lang’s companion his sister or his lover? Is she blind or just a bit hazy? Why is she picking up her home phone at work? And why are two lovers dancing in the background, as Charles and his sister talk earnestly in the foreground? It turns out the two floating dancers are the radio music brought to life - but why cast a romantic shadow across a distinctly unromantic scene? It’s all too loose and the show starts to unravel, unaided by those thundering overhead trains that drown out an already sound-swamped and over-cluttered production.

Till 9 July 2011


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