The Whisky Taster (Bush Theatre 10/2/10) 12 February 2010

We've struck gold!

Let's be honest, there aren't many of us theatregoers who will take many chances on untried, untested theatre i.e. hasn't played regionally or at Edinburgh (translation - doesn't come with reviews). Other than knowing someone involved there has to be something about the play that catches the imagination and usually it's just the marketing description. Never dismiss the power of the description. Here is the one for The Whisky Tasters:

'Barney and Nicola are advertising wonder kids. They win accounts with wit, charm and a secret weapon - Barney's ability to feel, smell and taste colours, and to translate these sensations into words.

Lately Barney had been finding things way too colourful and wished his full throttle London life was more black and white, but Nicola is hell bent on winning accounts at all costs.

When the two hire an old Scottish Whisky Taster to help them with a new campaign, his strange wisdom slows the Londoners to a stop, just as the deadline looms.'

Now, to me that sounded really interesting and pair that with the urge to take a chance I booked. Luckily enough I didn't revisit the description so when I was finally settled in my seat at the Bush I was completely open to what was going to happen on stage, completely unencumbered by preconceived thoughts. This was a good thing because ultimately what happened was allot bigger than any description could ever capture on a leaflet.

What else did I get? Characters that are at once bigger than life and entirely recognisable with uniformly knockout performances, a script that mines the curiosities of personal and work relationships, and direction that understands the writers style and transfers that understanding to all the plays many detailed elements to create what I feel was one of the most wholly enjoyable evenings I've spent in the theatre.

Let's break it down. The performances. Amazing. I was only familiar with two of the actors - Samuel Barnett (Olivier and Tony nominated as Posner in The History Boys - and on film) and Simon Merrells (recently seen as the lead in On the Waterfront at the Theatre Royal Haymarket). Samuel plays Barney, the one with the special talent and Simon is his boss. I saw The History Boys twice at the National and remember Samuel Barnett very well. I thought he was really good but wasn't entirely sure why he was singled out so often as being exceptional. Close up at the Bush it's evident why. His character is not the funniest of the lot and is not supposed to be, but he delivers a finely drawn performance as a young man not willing to let go. We feel every twist and turn his character goes through. Also, he has the ungodly difficult task of letting us, the audience, see and feel what it's like to feel smell and taste colours. You try it.

Simon Merrells delivers an hilarious performance as his overly expressive boss. There are hints of Ricky Gervais in The Office but they are only hints.

There are three other actors - Chris Larkin, John Stahl and Kate O'Flynn. Chris Larkin (The Lady from Debuque,TR Haymarket; His Dark Materials, National Theatre; Midsummer Night's Dream / Much Ado About Nothing, Open Air Regents Park) as Christopher the client, turns in a very subtly funny performance that will seem very familiar to anyone who has had to pitch to a client, John Stahl (Othello, The Globe; The Crucible, RSC; The Weir, Royal Court) is the Whisky Taster and is suitably enthusiastic, obsessed and mysterious and finally, what could be my discovery of the year Kate O'Flynn (A Miracle, Royal Court; House of Special Purpose, Chichester) as Nicola. She turns in a stonkingly amazing performance. From the get go, she inhabits her Croydon native character with such gusto and humour that you immediately warm to her. She allows us to see all sides to her character - gutsy, funny, strong, determined and driven as well as the tender, insecure and vulnerable side. It's true tour de force. In one scene she leaves in a huff then reenters and while standing still, a single real tear falls from her eye, it was magical. She spoke volumes without saying a word or indicating her emotions. It was very powerful.

Of course non of these performances would have been possible without a wonderful script by James Graham (Eden's Empire, Finborough Theatre; Tory Boyz, Soho Theatre;, The Bush). He has a very keen ear for dialogue and infuses his characters conversations with current cultural references. I like the way his mind works. Throughout his story we get the pleasure of hearing a debate on what was better to watch as a youth - CBBS or CiTV, finding out how whiskey is made and hearing more about the London tube map than I knew before. It may sound dry but these various elements are intricately sewn into the whole, it really is a tapestry of characters and ideas and it never gets out of control. All the elements have a very specific reason for being there and as a result the characters are as rich as the whisky of the title.

Extra special mention to director James Grieve (Artefact, The Bush, National Tour, Off Broadway; Comfort, Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays; The List, Arcola; and Associate Director of the Bush and recently appointed Artistic Director for Paines Plough).

This is always a difficult one for me. I connected with his style. There are certain directors whose 'style' I immediately connect with and I am not sure if I can get the 'why' across. For me it's about how the actors interact with each other, how they deliver the dialogue and get across the plays ideas and elements. Anything too showy or 'unauthentic' and I tend to shy away. This play has alot of quickfire dialogue, sometimes heavy with ideas and thoughts. Characters cut each other off and often react and comment without saying a word. Of course much of this comes from the actors but it's the director that keeps it all on track and ensures that what happens on stage remains true to the story and style of the playwright. James Grieve does all the above, with panache, and I will be seeing more of his work.

My last mention will be the designer Lucy Osbourne who has actually found a way to immerse the audience in the felling and colours that Barney experiences.

I really can't say enough good things about The Whisky Taster. It was quite full the night I saw it and I couldn't help but think that it should have been packed out. From what I could tell the audience, pretty much loved it and many dashed out during the interval and after the performance to buy a play text. I think that's a great testiment to the writing.

If you are in London or can be here before the the end of February I strongly urge you to get a ticket. You don't want to be that person who will have to regret, out loud, to all those who were fortunate enough to see The Whisky Taster ' I really wish I saw that'. You have until the 27th of February. I took the chance and struck gold.