Categories: Theatre; Hull Truck Theatre; Oldham Coliseum; New Vic Theatre.
‘Whisky Galore’, a co-production between Hull Truck, Oldham Coliseum and New Vic Theatre, adapted by Philip Goulding and directed by Kevin Shaw is a re-telling of Compton Mackenzie’s novel of the same name, written in 1947.
Mackenzie was an actor, politician, broadcaster and amateur theologian as well as a writer. Living on the Isle of Barra, he was an astute observer of local life, and much respected by F.Scott Fitzgerald who attributed his own first book, ‘The Side Of Paradise’, to the influence of Mackenzie. The comic novel ‘Whisky Galore’ is based on a true 1941 incident in which SS Politician ran aground on the hidden sandbanks of the Hebridean island of Eriskay, going down with a cargo that included 24,000 bottles of whisky and the equivalent of several millions of pounds in ten-shilling notes – money bound for Jamaica as part of a hush-hush relief programme for British territories in the Caribbean. The theft of the whisky and cash was a gift of a storyline for any writer to pursue, and Mackenzie did it with aplomb, weaving a ridiculously humorous tale of a fictional island group with suitably comic names Great Todday and Little Todday who, due to wartime rationing, had run out of ‘the water of life’ when a shipwreck loaded with crates of usquebaugh conveniently appeared, necessitating a farcical attempt to retrieve the cargo before the ship sank and the authorities arrived to confiscate the liquor. In common with all successful humorous stories, in order to make the comedy resonate with full force, Mackenzie’s prose is laced with background details and sub-plots alluding to more serious cultural issues; the clashes between the Protestant island of Great Todday and the Roman Catholic island of Little Todday, the common Gaelic language, the varying local accents and the divisions when couples from opposing faith communities are set on marrying.
It is a complex novel to adapt and anyone who attempts it is to be commended. It has been done on a number of occasions, twice as a film, once as a radio broadcast, once as a musical and several times for theatrical presentation, perhaps most notably by Iain Finlay MacLeod for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2015. Philip Goulding has approached it in characteristic authentic style and there is absolutely no mileage in making comparisons with other versions. He has chosen to use the device of a touring troupe of female performers, The Pallas Players, inspired by the Osiris Players, a professional company set up by Nancy Hewins in 1927 which ran for over forty years. Telling the story of ‘Whisky Galore’ through seven players setting up in a Co-operative Hall without the sophistication of a full theatre rigging and dressing room space, reliant only upon a stage set and costumes that could be easily transported from venue to venue and where the financial insecurities and expectations of women of the time could mean that the make-up of the company fluctuated significantly and at short notice, is an undertaking that relays a real essence of nostalgia and vintage quality, and a rare insight into a part of theatrical history that we owe a great deal to today.
As a director of such reputation and standing, Kevin Shaw was taking a risk with this production. It was inevitable that some audiences would not ‘get it’, looking for something more in keeping with the glamorous sets, lighting, costume and direct narrative line usually seen on our stages, but it is the intelligent stripping back of those modern accoutrements that so effectively transports us to the world of the 1950’s acting company and allows us access to the charms of that era and theatrical tradition. This isn’t a production that is solely about the telling of the title tale and to misconstrue it as such is to do it a huge disservice.
Patrick Connellan’s confident ‘less is more’ design signature is inscribed right throughout this piece. For those who remember the ubiquitous wooden trestle tables common to every community hall in the land, often with splintered chunks bashed out of the ends resulting in interesting sculptural curves, and stencilled across with over-sized company markings, the stage set is immediately evocative of time and space, and its constant re-arrangement to conjure up a ship, pub bar or church sanctuary is mesmerising to watch. The base costume of land girl uniforms inventively added to in order to allow a staggering thirty three very differing characters to emerge from a cast of seven is simple in its concept, but utterly brilliant in its execution.
None of this would have worked however if the seven members of the troupe had failed to carry out their parts with precision. It takes seriously accomplished acting to be able to play ‘acting gone wrong’ well, and in ‘Whisky Galore’ the casting has been spot-on. Alicia McKenzie as Juliet Mainwaring, the troupe member called in at the last minute, shows impeccable comic timing as her character, in turn playing a number of other characters, fluffs entrances and costume changes. Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby is authoritative in holding the narrative, but lurches from sou’westered silliness to endearing priest with equal skill. Lila Clements as Aileen McCormack, is the elegant girlfriend Peggy who brooks no nonsense, but also hilarious as Mr Brown the tweed salesman and Lieutenant Boggust, as well as being weirdly loveable as the wimpish George Campbell. Isabel Ford as Bea Corford’s portrayal of the pompous Waggett is wonderful and her blonde haired Annag not only looks as though she just stepped from the pages of the Broons’ Annual, but shows Ford’s quick wit to perfection. Christine Mackie as Win Hewitt is fabulous as she morphs from Donald MacKechnie, through Doctor MacClaren, to the miserable Mrs Campbell with a twinkle in her eye for all and dealing with unforeseen calamities such as a moustache that becomes detached with some wonderful ad libbing. Joey Parsad, as Doris Sanderson, is gracefully beautiful as Catriona MacLeod, but displays clowning physicality as Roderick Macrurie and Joseph Macroon and throws in an admirable display of affection as Waggett’s dog. Shuna Snow as Connie Calvert is engaging as Fred Odd, Peggy’s suitor, and sententious as Major Quiblick. This talented septet bring the story to life as an irresistible pantomimic ensemble filling the auditorium with laughter and fun.
Companies such as The Pallas Players were instrumental in taking live theatre to communities that would not usually access it. They were the ground-breakers of today’s attempts to take theatre into the community and to dismantle perceptions of the arts as the preserve of the elite. They had few resources other than their talents in telling a story well and through their influence many were touched. It’s a pattern of theatre making that is coming back with a vengeance; indeed, Hull - where I saw this performance - has a number of small companies, some of them all female ensembles like the one portrayed in ‘Whisky Galore’, who are producing accomplished and important work away from appointed theatre spaces.
Kevin Shaw’s ‘Whisky Galore’ is a fast moving, funny and entertaining version of Mackenzie’s novel and, like the original, it doesn’t shy away from mentioning the more sober issues, but theatre aficionados shouldn’t be put off by the device used to tell the story, for it is in that that its true strength lies. Theatre isn’t the preserve of those who can afford top notch ticket prices, and it doesn’t need vast amounts of technology or expensive sets. When gifted actors are set in the most unpromising of places, magic happens in the hearts of ordinary people. To use that very technology and those designated places to convey that message is like retrieving whisky from a fancy sinking ship and handing it out to every Donald, George and Joseph under the very noses of the unsuspecting Customs and Excise men. A tapaidh move indeed.
'Whisky Galore' can be seen at Hull Truck until May 12, after which it continues to tour.
May 16 - June 2
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
June 5 - June 9
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
June 13 – June 16
June 20 – June 23
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
June 26 – June 30