For many people their way in to Whisky Galore will have been the 1949 film, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, which told the story of a group of Scottish islanders trying to plunder the cargo of 28,000 cases of malt whisky, from a ship stranded on their coastline.
The film, updated in 2016 with a cast which included Eddie Izzard and Gregor Fisher, was based on a novel inspired by a true story about the SS Politician, en-route for the West Indies in 1941, written by Compton Mackenzie.
The new production of Whisky Galore directed by Kevin Shaw (Oldham Coliseum) uses Philip Goulding’s adaptation about a fictitious all-female troupe from the 1950s, called the Pallas Players, putting on a play of Whisky Galore. So it is a play within in a play with actors playing multiple roles and sometimes more than one person in the same role.
You might think that all those layers would lead to confusion and it might if you didn’t just give up trying to piece together who everyone was, and just enjoyed the ride. A thick Scottish brogue is hard to decipher at the best of times, never mind when those speaking it keep changing roles, costumes and sex at the drop of a hat.
Sergeant Fred Odd, played brilliantly by Shuna Snow with boyish thigh-slapping gusto, is home from leave looking to court Peggy Macroon. Romance is also blossoming between the shy school teacher George Campbell – much to his overbearing mother’s horror and Catriona, Joseph Macroon’s other daughter. It is not the pending nuptials that occupies the islanders, but the lack of a wee dram of uisge beatha ‘water of life’. That is, until the news of a ship in distress on the rocks in thick fog, between the two islands.
Patrick Connellan’s set transforms ingeniously into hotel interior, quayside, cellars and boats and a bouncy jalopy and rudimentary props to convey the story. The backdrop takes the form of a map showing the two islands of Little Todday and Great Todday, useful as an aide mémoire, to place the locations where the drama takes place. Such as the whereabouts of Garryboo or Watasett, also the bar of the hotel in Snorvig where, early in the piece, we find the islanders attending a wake of one Captain Macphee, who has died due to a lack of whisky: or more properly the shock of being refused his third pint of beer. He has resigned himself to beer drinking due to the whisky shortage.
This co-production by Hull Truck, Oldham Coliseum and New Vic Theatre is good silly wholesome fun, with plenty of laugh out loud moments – particularly after the interval and the arrival of the whisky. The added layers of play within the play, gives the actors plenty of licence to send both up for good measure, through solid performances and standout comic turns. Highlight among them is Christine Mackie as the disagreeable Mrs Campbell – who comes across like Margaret Rutherford – and her delicious take on the confirmed bachelor Dr Maclaren.
Theatre and the arts were vitally important for morale during and after the war, a night at the theatre would have provided a few hours of much-needed escapism and entertainment and it holds just as true today. The idea of the Pallas Players are inspired by the real life Osiris Players an all-female company largely forgotten, who on a shoestring, toured the length and breadth of the country from 1927 – 1963 bringing Shakespeare to audiences in schools, village halls and factory canteens.
Whisky Galore runs at Hull Truck until Saturday 12 May then moves to Newcastle, Doncaster and Coventry.