Whisky Galore – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Writer: Philip Goulding from the book by Compton MacKenzie

Director: Kevin Shaw

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

The programme notes for Whisky Galore tell us about a troupe of strolling players, The Osiris Players, which was an all-female theatre group touring adaptations of the classics to schools and other community spaces. Formed in the mid-1920s, the women-only rule might have been caused by the shortage of men after the Great War. Costs restricted cast sizes to no more than seven, with actors typically taking several rôles. Osiris continued touring until 1963, when founder, director and actor Nancy Hewins retired.

Meanwhile, in 1941, the SS Politician ran aground off the island of Eriskay carrying a cargo that consisted, among other items, of 28000 cases of whisky, not all of which was recovered after locals relieved the ship of much of the cargo, their usual supply having dried up because of wartime rationing. Compton Mackenzie took this story as the basis for his 1947 novel, Whisky Galore, which entered the popular consciousness when adapted into the 1949 film, Whisky Galore! by Ealing Studios to critical and popular acclaim.

These two apparently unconnected stories form the basis for Philip Goulding’s adaptation of the book, Whisky Galore, as he imagines it produced by the Pallas Players, a seven-strong all-female troupe heavily based on Hewins’ Osiris Players. And as leader and director, Flora Bellerby (played by Sally Armstrong) introduces the troupe to the audience, one can imagine being transported back in time to 1955 as the Pallas Players present their take on Whisky Galore.

Most will recall that the plot involves the liberation of the whisky from the ship. However, there are numerous sub-plots revolving around life in the Outer Hebrides at the time. So we’re introduced to the Catholic island of Little Todday and its fiercely Protestant counterpart, Great Todday, and the rivalries between them. For example, the romance of meek schoolteacher George Campbell from Great Todday with Catriona Macleod of Little Todday is almost scuppered by his domineering mother’s unwavering opposition to any Catholic. And the islanders of Great Todday almost miss out on the windfall when their Protestant principles require them to keep the Sabbath, something that doesn’t seem to bother their Little Todday counterparts unduly. There’s also pompous authority, of course, in the person of Paul Waggett, the English leader of the Home Guard, despairing at the lack of discipline among his men.

So the scene is set for a farcical evening of cat-and-mouse as the whisky is seen as a godsend to the increasingly sober islanders. However, this production never quite gets going. The use of a narrator, especially during the first half, helps introduce us to the characters, but the sheer number of them (28) makes keeping up with the story hard work – not helped when, as a comedic device, the vampish Annag is played by several different cast members. There’s a deliberate ‘amateurishness’ in some of the aspects because, we’re told, Juliet Mainwaring, played by Alicia McKenzie, is a late replacement for an established Pallas member, but what isn’t as clear is the extent to which, for example, the rather caricatured and obstinately two-dimensional characters are played that way because we are imagining them played by the Pallas Players.

Nevertheless, amateurish is one thing this production is not – costume and scene changes are slick as elements are moved, adjusted and opened to transport us around the islands, and the cast works hard to differentiate the characters. Armstrong provides a calm steer as the players’ ‘director’ and narrator while Lila Clements’ George Campbell is truly under his mother’s thumb – at least until he gets some Dutch courage. Christine Mackie’s Mrs Campbell is hugely overbearing. Isabel Ford relishes her rôle as Waggett, striding pompously about the stage, a forerunner, surely, of Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army. McKenzie’s portrayal of Waggett’s sweet, but long-suffering wife is a pleasure to watch. The terribly down-to-earth Sergeant Odd of Shuna Snow, half of another star cross’d couple with Clements’ Peggy Macroon, brings a measure of common sense to proceedings.

Director Kevin Shaw and the cast do their best but are hogtied by a script that tries too hard to do too much and as a result never, unlike Waggett’s Austin when memorably driving around the islands, gets out of second gear. The faithful reproduction of the tensions between the islands and their families perhaps gets in the way of the anarchic rebellion against authority at the story’s centre which, as a result, feels downplayed with opportunities lost for more slapstick and physical comedy. As a result, Whisky Galore raises wry smiles rather than the belly laughs one might have hoped for.

Runs Until 23 June 2018 and on tour  | Image: Contributed

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Lacks fizz

The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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