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Mr Happiness and The Water Engine at The Old Vic Tunnels

Alice Dickerson

The Old Vic Tunnels' two-for-the-price-of-one offer presents two beautifully evocative dramas, but risks delivering style over substance.

The Water Engine is the main attraction of the evening. Set in 1930s Chicago, the city's 'Century of Progress' International Exposition embodies the pervasive sense of great excitement and belief that anything is possible. Within this ferment of innovation and modernism, the play's protagonist Charlie has invented a machine which runs only on water. The contrast between Charlie's ambitions and those of his sister Rita, who craves for a simple, machine-free life in the countryside, is symbolic of the tensions underlying American society at that time. Inevitably, the great wheels of progress cannot be halted, even when they crush innocents beneath them, and greed ultimately destroys Charlie's na´ve American Dream.

Mr Happiness is a much shorter and more light-hearted piece, set up like a short preceding the feature length film. It provides a snap-shot examination of the wisdoms of Mr Happiness, a radio agony uncle who strives to provide insightful answers to the prosaic questions of his listeners. Given our fascination with the character of Mr Happiness, the letters which he receives are rather unnecessarily dramatised by a series of silhouettes, but fail to detract from a convincing performance by David Burt.

The theatre company behind the Mr Happiness and The Water Engine, Theatre6, prides itself on producing innovative and stunning theatre combined with original live music. It is therefore no surprise that they were drawn to the work of David Mamet. For anyone who has seen as Mamet film, such as the 1980s classic Glengarry Glen Ross, these productions will be instantly recognisable; the attention to period detail, the studied musical accompaniment, the disjointed scenes and fast-paced dialogue. The staging for both plays appears almost sepia-tinged and they are filled with scenes which symbolise the transformative forces of the period; the radio studio, the newsroom, and the post room, overwhelmed with chain letters promising exponential wealth to all those that respond.

The Old Vic Tunnels provide a fantastic backdrop and it is worth noting that the Old Vic Volunteer Scheme contributed to the productions' casting, set design, production, direction and sound and music design. Unfortunately, despite the innovative staging and evocative sound effects, one cannot disguise the fact that these plays were originally written for radio and fail to effectively translate onto the stage.

• Until 10 July at The Old Vic Tunnels

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