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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Whisky Taster

Summer. For the whisky. Is an overbearing mother. Her children are fat, and lazy, and spoilt. Winter? She pushes her children. Hardens them, challenges them, but most importantly, punishes them. Unashamed, unforgiving, merciless, but she is honest, and she is fair. Siphons out the weak and rewards the strong. She is Darwinism. She is Nietzsche. Evolution is ruthless. — the Whisky Taster
The Whisky Taster
John Stahl as the Whisky Taster (Simon Anand)
I was at school with a girl called Jane Mackay and later we knew she had a special gift. She was musical and artistic and when she heard music she would see colours which she translated into paintings, her art giving another dimension to the music. Jane has synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia can be broken down into "syn" meaning together and "aesthesia" meaning sensation and it can take various forms, grapheme or words or letters to colour, sounds to colour, taste to touch and word to taste. Artists like Kandinsky and David Hockney, musicians like Franz Listz and Duke Ellington, and the author Vladimir Nabokov are thought to have been or be synaesthetes.

In James Graham's original play The Whisky Taster his character Barney (Samuel Barnett) has grapheme and sound synaesthesia which he uses in his work in an advertising agency to choose colours and music for a campaign. Often his synaesthesia causes Barney an intensely painful experience. Quiet, shy Barney works alongside his antithesis Nicola (Kate O'Flynn), a loud mouthed, diamond in the rough, a streetwise girl with a poor education and background, who doesn't know why people use the expression, "coals to Newcastle". She needs Barney's creativity; he needs her presentation skills and persuasiveness. In a cut throat industry, these two young ad executives work for the despicable Malcolm (Simon Merrells) who is holding out a post in Mumbai as a reward for one of his most promising staff. As Nicola and Barney are due to present their ideas for a vodka promotion for the Facebook and Twitter generation to their client Christopher (Chris Larkin), Nicola hires a Scottish whisky expert, called only the Whisky Taster (John Stahl) to help them. The Whisky Taster understands more than the flavours and history of malt whisky; he recognises Barney's gift and his predicament.

James Graham ties in his themes of advertising, synaesthesia and love remarkably well in a witty script with sadness always just underneath the comedy. The designer Lucy Osborne has taken the theme of colour and initially the whole set, office furniture and costumes are monochrome until the advent of the red and green tartan kilted Scotsman. Even the computer monitor shows only in black and white. Multiple neon tubes of colour in green and yellow and purple wait framing the stage, ready to light up in dramatic response to Barney's brain synapses. As Barney comes to understand his emotions, the colours open up for him and the cast appear in colours. James Grieve directs adroitly on The Bush's tiny stage surrounded by the audience on three sides.

Many will come out of The Whisky Taster and head for the nearest off licence looking to buy one of the malt whiskies John Stahl so mouth-wateringly and poetically describes in Graham's love ode to the single malt whisky, "not like others", drawing a parallel with Barney's gift. Others will simply relish the splendid performances from Samuel Barnett as Barney, sensitive and troubled by the stimuli he feels, Kate O'Flynn as Nicola an ambitious, gobby girl without connections, with only her ability to launch her career, and John Stahl as the mysterious and uncompromising wise man.

I shall remember the beauty of the Whisky Taster's lyrical, metaphoric descriptions of the process of producing malt whisky, its relation to the landscape, to the peat, to the sea, mountains and forest and to the cask in which it matures for years and years. It's no wonder the Scotsman is reluctant to taste Nicola's vodka! Do try to see this affecting new play at the exciting Bush Theatre!

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The Whisky Taster
Written by James Graham
Directed by James Grieve

Starring: Samuel Barnett, Kate O'Flynn, John Stahl
With: Chris Larkin, Simon Merrells
Design: Lucy Osborne
Lighting: James Farncombe
Sound: Emma Laxton
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7610 4224
Booking to 27th February 2010 (extended by an extra week)
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th January 2010 and 3rd February 2010 performances at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush Green, London W12 8QD (Tube: Shepherd's Bush)

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