By English standards, the Scots are professional drinkers. They take their alcohol seriously. It’s no accident that the national spirit is called, in the gaelic, uisge beatha – the water of life or whisky to the Sassenach. Scotland runs on it. And so did I until one night at a lock-in at my parents’ pub when I drank pretty much a whole a bottle, couldn’t move for two days and now can’t touch a drop. I make do with VSOP Cognac but it’s not the same.
I should declare an interest here: I am a Scot. I’ve lived south of the border for most of my life but in spirit I’m a Scot. This is how I know that Sir Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 comic novel Whisky Galore is really nothing of the kind. It’s an instruction manual for the indigenous population on how to manage their English colonial masters. Consider Sgt Odd. This charming Englishman has fallen hopelessly in love with the daughter of the local grocer and, in a cunning reverse-Sabine, she is carrying him off to the altar in triumph. He’s even converting to Catholicism to facilitate it. Consider the absurdly pompous Colonel Waggett, self-appointed head of the Home Guard, an institution the locals encourage by not turning up. Consider…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I need you to take a quick mental step sideways to the world of eurythmy and the Women’s Institute. It’s 1955 and an intrepid bunch of gels in jodhpurs are touring England with their all-women production of Whisky Galore. It’s like Bunty meets J.B. Priestley. These troops did exist, a hangover from the pre-war concert party and the exigencies of war-time casting, and this production – a joint effort by Oldham Coliseum, Hull Truck and the New Vic at Stoke, directed by Kevin Shaw – is both a celebration and a revival of the tradition. And jolly good it is too.
It’s 1944, the war is still on, and whisky is in short supply. But on the islands of Great and Little Todday it has run out. There’s not a drop to be had, not even a wee clochandichter. Disaster. With delays and shortages on all fronts, the islanders have no idea where their next dram is coming from. And then HMS Cabinet Minister comes to grief on the rocks off Little Todday, carrying 50,000 cases of the stuff.
Any actor will tell you that rehearsing tragedy is hilarious but comedy is a deadly serious business. By the time you’ve spent three weeks in a room with it you’ve no idea where the laughs are, or even if it’s funny at all. Compound that with playing multifarious characters and a performance style that involves cardboard sheep and the occasional ridiculous wig and you can imagine the cast’s relief when their first outing was rapturously received.
It would be egregious to pick out individual performances. The cast of seven play at least 20 parts, sometimes dividing one part up between them, and sometimes so well it’s impossible to work out who is playing who. And they’ve got lots to do, changing costumes, moving sets, carrying silly props, so it’s going to take them a couple of days to feel completely at ease, and of course you have to learn where the laughs are, and play them. On the first night it was a fine blend; by the end of the week it will be a single malt. Slàinte.
Main image: Christine Mackie and Isabel Ford in Whisky Galore at Coliseum Theatre, Oldham. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes.
Whisky Galore is at Oldham Coliseum until April 7, 2018. For more information, click here.