There are obvious difficulties inherent in staging a piece originally written for radio. Chiefly, how do you best introduce the visual into a piece that has been designed for an aural medium? Director Kate McGregor’s approach, in her double bill of short plays by David Mamet – both of which were originally penned for wireless broadcast – is to create a piece of theatre that is still very distinctly related to the world of the radio play. The results are rather enchanting.
The first play, Mr Happiness, is a short piece based around an on-air agony uncle’s radio show. Listeners send in their problems and he attempts to give out advice; some of this advice is profound, whilst some of it amusing. David Burt is superb as this guru of the airwaves and, with his monologue played in such close quarters to the audience, it is very easy to get caught up in his performance. As he speaks into the microphone, silhouetted figures are projected on the gaps between the cluttered shelves that form the backdrop of the set, giving physical form to the contents of each letter.
The second and longer of the two pieces, The Water Engine, is set in Chicago in 1934. Inventor Charles Lang creates an engine that runs on water and could revolutionise the world. His attempts to patent the machine leads him into dealings with an unscrupulous pair of lawyers, Gross and Oberman, and when Lang doesn’t buckle, they become intent on destroying both him and his invention.
The play is an intricate and intense thriller, fast-paced and filled with his signature ‘Mamet Speak.’ Ambiguities are woven into the piece, keeping the audience on their toes. There are strong performances throughout, particularly from Jamie Treacher as Lang, James Hillier as Gross, and David Burt, juxtaposing his amiable turn as Mr. Happiness with that of the ruthless Oberman. But it is the marriage of design and direction that really make this piece memorable. This is first production to be staged in The Screening Room, a new space within the Old Vic Tunnels, and the tunnels themselves, with their dark, damp brickwork, serve to both evoke the industrialisation of 1930s Chicago and underline the moral murkiness of the play, creating a suitably on-edge atmosphere.
Amy Jane Cook’s set has two very distinct areas; a central performance space, framed by a separate and elevated surrounding area where sound effects are created live, just as if this production was being recorded for radio. This use of sound effects and amplified voices provide a witty reminder of the play’s roots in radio; ultimately a sense of detachment is created between what you’re seeing what you’re hearing, and you become very aware of the artifice of the process. Though slightly surreal this process is also mesmerising, to the point where it occasionally becomes a distraction. But this is only an initial hurdle and McGregor’s frequently bewitching production does full justice to the power of Mamet’s writing.