The Water Engine, Theatre 503, London SW11

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Produced by Direct Action in collaboration with the Young Vic, and subtitled An American Fable, we are in Depression era Chicago, as the 1934 Century of Progress Exhibition opens. Charles Lang has invented an engine that will run on nothing more than water, and has come to town to have it patented. But soon this idealist finds himself engulfed by the shadowy forces of big business.

It only takes four actors to populate a bustling Chicago in Tom Wright's appropriately inventive production. Pace is of the essence. Characters promenade on the spot, creating a relentless sense of movement.

That Paul Chequer's blinky, nervous, classic American everyman inventor remains constant as Lang, while the other actors transform, only serves to increase our share in his unease as the people he can trust become fewer and further between. Nothing is spared in ratcheting up the tension over the scant hour of the piece.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the enforcer for the faceless corporation which wants to buy Charles's idea – to exploit it or bury it – has the sinister might of paranoid capitalism in every corner of his rich baritone.

Actors turn percussionists to deliver a vivid series of sound effects, an ingenious and affectionate nod to the radio days of the period, and the play's own origins (written for radio in 1977 and later adapted for the stage). Rattling and clanging on Robert Innes Hopkins' three-sided cage of a set, they create everything from the clamour of a newsroom to the clatter of a period elevator. Props are palmed and mimed, left to our imagination, another nod to the radio of the piece's birth.

David Holmes's lighting design, through an ever-present gossamer gauze of smoke, lends the playing area a sepia tinge – perfect for the period.

In one scene Mamet juxtaposes his central character, who would willingly precipitate the downfall of oil, with a soap-box speaker espousing the virtues of Communism. That Mamet's comments on oil and American capitalism – that give the play a bang-up-to-date feel – are allowed impressive and subtle space to breathe is testimony to this incisive production.