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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Monday, June 22, 2009

Whisky Galore, theatre review

Published in Northings.

WHISKY GALORE – A MUSICAL! (Pitlochry Festival Theatre)

GETTING A musical right is one of the hardest jobs in the theatre. Many a brilliant song has been axed on Broadway when it was blamed for hampering the rhythm of the show. And when musicals flop they flop spectacularly.

So it's a double credit to Pitlochry Festival Theatre that not only is the premiere of Whisky Galore thoroughly entertaining, but it is also the first musical ever to be staged there. Whether it would survive the rigours of Broadway is a moot point, because Ken Alexander's feelgood production, with a sparkling cast of 14, makes a perfect fit for the theatre in the hills. It’s a wonder they never did a musical before.

Shona McKee McNeil (book) and Ian Hammond Brown (music and lyrics) have gone back to the Compton Mackenzie novel as their source, although those who love the Ealing film will still recognise the tone of gentle comedy. It means we see the story of the Scottish islanders – whose wartime whisky drought is eased when a boat sheds its cargo of "uisge beatha" – both in terms of World War II rationing and in the context of religious rivalry.

Part of an all-Scottish season of plays, it is a distinctively Scottish story, one informed by the tensions of island versus mainland, Scotland versus England and Catholic versus Protestant. In this context, the haul of whisky comes to represent an antidote to military order and Calvinist repression, symbolising the freedom denied by war and religious dogma. It's no accident that its return to the island coincides with the marriage of two sweethearts, the promise of another union and the return of social harmony.

There's a good deal of musical harmony too in the show, which draws influence from sea shanties and traditional folk melodies as well as Andrews Sisters-era popular song and more familiar musicals’ territory. The versatile cast join in on washboard, bagpipes, trumpets, guitars and penny whistles, giving a flavour to the production that is as indigenous as Ken Harrison's island set with its clever impression of the island's scale.

Hammond Brown's love songs have a tendency towards clichè (there's a lot of "bottom of my heart" and "I have a dream" type stuff), but more typically he does a great job at pushing the story forward clearly and tunefully. In the first half, McKee McNeil rather labours the point about the lack of whisky, and the act could be 20 minutes shorter, but she captures the innocent spirit of the original in an honest and unobtrusive way.

Above all, the cast do a tremendous job at keeping things buoyant – everyone is good, but particularly strong are Gillian Ford and Shirley Darroch as the would-be wives – and it’s a great demonstration of what the big Pitlochry ensemble can achieve when it pulls out all the stops.

Whisky Galore is in repertory at Pitlochry until October.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

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