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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Whisky Taster
Bush Theatre      January-February 2010

This is a play about advertising, ambition, love, synaesthesia, vodka, Scotch whisky, British drinking habits and the animosities between Generations X and Y.

That may seem like a lot to blend together, and playwright James Graham doesn't really succeed in doing so - the play is about each of these topics sequentially, completely changing its focus and subject every fifteen minutes or so.

Individual scenes may be well-written and played, but they don't add up to a coherent play.

In a London advertising agency, a young team are given a new vodka account to run, with their cynical boss playing them against each other by separately offering both the same big promotion if they succeed.

The girl is a self-made street kid from the north of England, fired with ambition but operating on raw nerves, always vaguely sensing that she's out of her depth. The boy is a more conventional university grad, shy and obviously madly in love with his co-worker.

His special talent and curse is synaesthesia, the cross-wiring of his senses that makes him taste colours or see music.

While this makes him invaluable to his employers - apparently his crossed senses are in tune with public tastes, so that, for example, the music a product makes him hear is perfect for ad jingles - he finds the sensory overload painful and tries to suppress his gift.

For reasons never fully explained, they decide that finding a new way to pitch vodka requires bringing in an expert in Scotch whisky. Cue a Scotsman straight out of Central Casting, about as real as Groundskeeper Willie, who proceeds to stop the play dead while he waxes poetic at length on the glories of single malt whisky.

The girl is bored and frustrated, desperate to get back to the subject of vodka, but the rich flavours of the Scot's samples break through the lad's defences, inspiring him to embrace his full sensory experience.

(In a nice design touch, set and costumes that we might not have noticed were all in shades of grey burst into colour from this point on.)

The distraction of these new experiences, the growing sexual tension within the team, the prospect of success splitting them, the gnomic wisdom dispensed uninvited by the Scotsman, and the general fear of bollixing up the assignment all seriously threaten their success.

This leads the boss to conclude, in another out-of-nowhere digression, that as a child of the 1980s he hates and resents the children of the 1990s and assumes that they feel the same about him.

Perhaps if playwright Graham had been able to unify all his themes, to find some metaphoric connection between, say, whisky and the generation gap, the play would have had the richness and emotional texture he was clearly hoping for.

The nearest he comes is making synaesthesia stand for diving in and taking emotional chances. But without more than that, the play is likely to feel longer than it is, with some strong and even eloquent sequences that just don't hang together or add up to enough to satisfy.

Director James Grieve sets what is perhaps too leisurely a pace and is too often unable to make sequential scenes feel like parts of the same play.

But he does guide his cast - particularly Samuel Barnett and Kate O'Flynn as the central couple - to make the most of individual moments and to succeed more than you might expect at sustaining a unity and continuity to their characters.

And special credit must go to the evocative designs of Lucy Osborne and James Farncombe, creating visual metaphors that are likely to be your strongest memories of this production.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Whisky Taster - Bush  Theatre 2010


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