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The Whisky Taster

James Graham
Bush Theatre
(2010)

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The prodigiously talented James Graham has practically written three plays for the price of one. The Whisky Taster is an ad agency comedy, a touching love story and a portrait of the joys and pains of synaesthesia and even adds a touch of the metaphysical to complete the mix.

Graham unerringly catches the all of the artificiality that must surely always hang over those who get rich by selling us products that we never wanted. They do so in a high-tech, deep thrust setting courtesy of designer Lucy Osborne that brings us far too close to the kind of selling superstars that one would run a mile from in a pub, rather than a theatre above one.

Samuel Barnett as Barney and Kate O'Flynn, close to perfection playing Nicola, are both in their mid-20s and ambitious for a step up the greasy pole that will probably come via a posting in Mumbai. They form a dream team with an intuitive connection helping to create perfect campaigns.

The latest test for them is how to make tasteless vodka attractive and their full on sales pitch delivered in tandem is judderingly awful but, sadly, all too believable.

While they may be hard to take, their boss Malcolm, played in a fine cameo by Simon Merrells, is so perfectly created by actor, writer and director James Grieve that he is scary in his carefully crafted insincerity.

The catalyst for change comes in unusual guise, a kilt. Quite how The Whisky Taster, Scottish and larger than life in the person of John Stahl, was recruited to flog vodka remains a mystery.

What he achieves is to free the clogged Barney from his unusual illness, synaesthesia. This is a disease that makes sufferers feel colours or even words.

When it is benign, the victim becomes highly creative and therefore of great value in an advertising agency. When it is not, it is very literally a pain, which is perfectly demonstrated by Samuel Barnett's convincing performance.

Stahl's character shows the kind of intensity that might normally only be seen by those about to be locked away for their own good. He does though have the ability of a poet and seer to look into others' minds.

Not only does the unnamed Whisky Taster try to help Barney to benefit from his affliction but he also identifies a heavily suppressed desire to pair up with his working soulmate, Nicola. The fact that she is already engaged to the unseen, monosyllabic Scott suddenly seems far less of an impediment.

In the final quarter of this 2½ hour play, most of the strands are brought together, as the big pitch that will make or break careers follows Barney's fumbling attempts to win over the love of his life.

The Whisky Taster is extremely funny but has a heart. It also manages to make some pretty caustic comments about the kind of values that are regarded as desirable in today's rat race. James Graham is clearly one to watch and with strong support from his cast, a trip to Shepherd's Bush should prove worthwhile.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher