The dank, echoey Old Vic Tunnels are a perfect setting for David Mamet’s radio plays Mr Happiness and The Water Engine. Mamet and the Old Vic’s artistic director Kevin Spacey are no strangers – Spacey starred in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Spacey returned the favour by staging and acting in Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow.
In Mr Happiness, David Burt superbly soliloquizes as an American radio-host-cum-agony uncle. Think of Frasier Crane dressed up as Rush Limbaugh and you’re nearly there. The advice is frank, brutally so at times, but with a constant theme of trying to do the best by everybody. Mother’s becoming a burden? Put her in a home to be cared for rather than ping-pong her between uncaring children. Burt’s strong voice resonates around the tunnel walls, adding gravitas and grit to the typical Mamet dialogue.
In comparison, The Water Engine takes twice as long to make half the impression. Our hero, inventor Charles Lang (Jamie Treacher who looks to us like a younger darker Jonny Lee Miller) has invented an engine that runs on distilled H20. His attempt to get his invention patented begins a tale of deception and death as malevolent lawyers threaten Charles and his blind sister while attempting to lay their hands on the plans.
There is much to admire about the production, not least the way the music and sound capture the aural beauty of early radio plays. All the incidental music and sound effects are produced live, most of them in plain sight of the audience. Between them, the cast play an assortment of instruments including a saxophone, a piano, a trumpet and a banjo; percussion is provided by rattling phones and slamming desks.
Unfortunately, the play itself is a ham-fisted excoriation of the American Dream which pulls in all directions and leaves the central story floundering for air. There are constant overtures of chain letters promoting Ponzi schemes, the growth of unions (Mamet’s own father was a union lawyer) and press-room shenanigans that add the square root of zilch to the plot. Mamet is rightly lauded for his dialogue but his choice of targets sometimes leaves us despairing. Let’s hope he won’t try the innocent geniuses vs evil lawyers theme again. Oh.