Bearing in mind that Compton Mackenzie’s farcical and quintessentially Scottish novel Whisky Galore has been around since 1947, as well as the subsequent classic Ealing comedy film released a couple of years after (and a recent remake released a couple of years ago), there are still a lot of people who are not familiar with it – myself being one of them. But also before the show had started I could overhear people who knew the book and film yet weren’t sure how this story could be achieved on stage. Sadly this stage adaptation by Phillip Goulding does not quite make it as engaging for those new audiences as the script is incredibly wordy and it is extremely challenging to follow the plot, other than the fact that there’s a war on, and there’s a whisky shortage then suddenly…it’s (surprise, surprise) whisky galore.
I suppose this could also be due to the extra complication of setting the story as a play within a play performed by the all-female troupe - the Pallas Players. According to the programme, this troupe is inspired by the real-life Osiris Players who toured schools and civic halls from 1927 to 1963 – which possibly explains the minimal set design (by Patrick Connellan) of crates, red curtains and cardboard cut-outs to give that both old-fashioned am-dram and Brechtian style of production – much like when I saw the National’s recent Threepenny Opera by Brecht in that a lot has gone into this production to make it look like not a lot has.
But by removing the high-tech aspects of modern theatre it enhances the performances and efforts of the ladies on stage, using comic timing, physical comedy and also physical theatre with a small amount of props to creatively display different locations. And like the recent smash hit The Play That Goes Wrong, lots of the comedy comes from breaking the fourth wall and reacting to the occasional mishaps. In fact I would say this approach is like a Goes Wrong play, but going right. It is a slightly mind-boggling concept but it is pulled off well with the direction by Kevin Shaw and the seven fantastic actresses; Sally Armstrong, Lila Clements, Isabel Ford, Christine Mackie, Alicia McKenzie, Joey Parsad and Shuna Snow who end up playing a total of 26 characters (and at some points a few actresses playing just the one character). Both individually and all together they absolutely light up the stage with their funny performances.
So with all that said, this production deserves full marks for finding a fresh new way of interpreting a classic story, however as it was a comedy I was hoping to laugh more than I did. And perhaps the performers were hoping to hear more laughs from the audience too (thus prompting a funny line about a joke misfire in one scene). As mentioned it really is due to the script which lets the performance down, however the Pallas Players look like they are having an incredible amount of fun on stage and their take on this production adds cheekiness and joy that fits brilliantly with these Scottish characters and a nostalgic wartime feel to the story.
Whisky Galore runs until Saturday 23rd June at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.
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