Mr. Happiness and the Water Engine tells the story of the inventor Lang and his creation of a machine that runs on (you’ve guessed it) water. The story is an engaging one, with the popular theme of corrupt government versus innocent individual made relevant for the audience in its setting against the economic downturn of 1930s Chicago, and touching upon sustainable resources. The production was poignant in its reminder of our resistance to committing to environmental issues, in that 80 years after this story we still, ultimately, choose financial gain over environmental salvation.
If the audience is patient and willing there is much up for consideration here, as the story moves from the cosy environment of the radio studio of presenter Mr Happiness, who reads letters from his listeners and offers advice to their romantic turmoils, to the fast-paced industrial landscape of the city. A wonderful set was on show in the opening scene, with boxes upon boxes marked ‘LETTERS’ piled up in the shadowy darkness of Mr Happiness’ studio, and the ‘on air/ off air’ light establishing the scene perfectly. The set then changes to a factory, Lang’s home and several other uncertain locations, and this is where the production unfortunately falls short. The staging of the show struggles to keep up with the pace of the story and in a tone almost painfully reminiscent of The Trial, fails to invoke any of the empathy that Kafka, or perhaps more appropriately for this comparison, Berkoff, did. Director Kate McGregor explains her enthusiasm at the opportunity to: “Place the mediums of theatre and radio next to each other”, but it becomes clear that without a substantial budget (like The Old Vic’s main house show Cause Celebre, another radio play translation), it becomes very difficult to slide between characters, locations and time effectively. With a plot that demands so much of this, Mr. Happiness and the Water Engine does not exploit the plot’s potential to impress.
David Burt, recently nominated for an Off West End Award, outshines the rest of the cast as Mr Happiness and Oberman in a neat doubling of characters that portrayed our often misplaced confidence in people, and I very much enjoyed the experimental live sound that Theatre6 seem to thrive on. However I often felt left behind by the story, and although this may be down to my own understanding of the script, surely the basic point is to tell a story well and to engage the audience through the characters. I did not feel this and, although the production did pique my interest with its general aesthetic and quirky moments, it did not satisfy in its translation to the stage.
Mr Happiness and The Water Engine is playing at the Old Vic Tunnels until 9th July. For more information, see the Old Vic Tunnels website here.