Mr Happiness & The Water Engine

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4 out of 5 stars

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Now that he’s come out as a born again conservative, I wonder how David Mamet looks back on his 1976 play ‘The Water Engine’. Written for radio (though adapted for stage in 1977), it tells the story of Charles Lang, an idealistic Chicago mailroom clerk who is hounded by capitalist powers after building a utopian engine.

Set in 1934 at the height of the golden age of radio, it comes across as a hauntingly detailed creation myth for modern capitalist America. Kate McGregor’s excellent production for Theatre6 is the first I’ve seen in the Old Vic Tunnels that truly shows off the space: the Stygian gloom and the rumble of trains help conjure a late hour for American innocence in which demagogues roar superstition over the airwaves and earnest Marxists preach socialist dreams on twilit street corners.

The fact that the Old Vic Tunnels now have a proper theatre (The Screening Room) helps enormously, allowing for an actual set in the form of Amy Cook’s evocative steampunk Chicago.

It’s not really an actors’ play, but McGregor and cast tell this elegiac fable with impressive clarity. And there’s room for a star turn in short opening companion monologue ‘Mr Happiness’, starring West End vet David Burt as a creamy-voiced radio agony uncle. It’s a neat piece of period set-up and a foreshadowing of ‘The Water Engine’s final message: that in our darkest hour, communication will be our salvation.

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