Whisky Galore

Compton Mackenzie, adapted by Philip Goulding
Oldham Coliseum Theatre, Hull Truck Theatre and New Vic Theatre
Oldham Coliseum Theatre

Lila Clements, Shuna Snow, Alicia McKenzie, Isabel Ford, Christine Mackie, Joey Parsad and Sally Armstrong Credit: Joel Chester Fildes
Shuna Snow, Lila Clements, Alicia McKenzie and Christine Mackie Credit: Joel Chester Fildes

While the story of Whisky Galore is best-known as a classic Ealing comedy from 1949 based on Mackenzie's novel, it is actually based on a true story of an island in the Outer Hebrides where, during the Second World War, a ship carrying 264,000 bottles of whisky was grounded on the rocks and its cargo—ahem—vanished.

The Coliseum production is also, apparently, a tribute to the all-female theatre group Osiris Players that toured Shakespeare and other plays to schools and other small local venues between 1927 and 1963. Here, the production is presented by the fictional Pallas Players, although this framing device serves little purpose other than to give an unneeded excuse for the playing of multiple roles and its link with Osiris is only evident from reading the programme.

Mackenzie's version of the story takes place on the islands of Little Todday and Great Todday, where there is a shortage of whisky due to the war and beer is also in short supply. After we learn about some of the Scottish inhabitants and the English army officers stationed there, the ship runs aground and the islanders try to replenish their drink supplies while evading the authorities. However, the reappearance of whisky on the islands does bring about several weddings by various means.

Patrick Connellan's design of giant sliding wooden crates that turn into various objects and locations in ingenious ways serve the story perfectly. The idea of a 39 Steps-style chaotic approach to storytelling with everyone playing lots of parts and occasionally making mistakes isn't exactly original but is a perfectly fine one that suits this story. There are also some touching little tales of budding relationships and family issues between islanders and the soldiers.

So with all of these elements in place, why does this production not work at all on any level?

The first culprit has to be the script. It relies heavily on long passages of narration, which will easily kill the pace of any fast-moving comedy. The idea of it being a travelling theatre company telling the tale and of the 39 Steps style of performance are hinted at now and again but not carried through so they serve only to hold up the action.

The plot is all over the place, drifting from one slight scene to another with no connection to one another. The shortage of whisky is often mentioned but isn't integral to any of the other myriad stories that are briefly visited. Most of the real action happens offstage and we are only told about it—and not in a way that makes it particularly interesting.

Director Kevin Shaw is really up against it to pump any pace into what should be a fast-moving farce, but the comic business that has been inserted only occasionally works and the quality of the performances is variable. There are some lovely characterisations from some actors, and some that are overblown and superficial without being funny enough.

There is a lovely tale nicely acted about George's (Lila Clements) reluctance to tell his disapproving mother (Christine Mackie—also great as Doctor Mclaren) about his engagement and another of English soldier Fred (Shuna Snow) and his willingness to become Catholic to wed islander Peggy (Clements again). Other storylines come and go but are never developed, and the whole thing just doesn't gel together—and the connections to the whisky are tenuous at best.

This production is to tour to its co-producers after its Oldham run, but it's hard to see how it can be made to work as well as it should without some pretty major surgery.

Reviewer: David Chadderton