The Whisky Taster centres around a pair of young executives at an advertising agency trying to win an account to promote a new brand of vodka. Nicola, a brash Croydonite, is a grafter but her colleague Barney has the condition synaesthesia, where the senses are somehow mixed up so that sufferers end up feeling colours for emotions and words have their own colours, which he utitlises to create winning ads. Under pressure from their boss to land this customer, they decide to employ a whisky taster to add a new depth to their campaign, but he ends up showing them a lot more about life than they were expecting.
The play literally crackles into life with the first meeting between Barney and the whisky taster. As Stahl gives a wonderfully written spiel about each of the whiskys they are tasting, we see a visual representation of the synaesthesia kick in spectacular fashion. James Farncombe’s lighting design snakes around Lucy Osbourne’s cleverly designed set in a scintillating manner reaching heights which are never really matched again. The interactions with the whisky taster are what makes this play special as there’s a genuine connection between this pair which is really interesting to watch. The romantic melodrama thread and the satirical elements on the advertising world didn’t feel quite as unique, although still being well-written, feeling sparky and contemporary and all fitting together nicely.
Samuel Barnett was highly impressive as the lovelorn Barney, externalising a mental condition very effectively and movingly without overdoing it, and the growth from the shy man cowering from his condition to someone willing to embrace all that life has to offer him, from monochrome to technicolour, was well played. His chemistry with Kate O’Flynn’s Nicola was excellent, their overlapping dialogue scenes were flawless, John Stahl’s totemic titular figure was a commanding presence, if a little unimaginatively dressed and there was also excellent support from Simon Merrells as a nightmare boss, desperately down with the kids and a hilarious abuser of management-speak.
So, a fascinating play, fresh and modern with some interesting design concepts that is well worth your time tripping over to West London to see, indeed they’ve just announced an extension of a week to the run to now’s your chance.
Just finally, something I spent a lot of time in Waiting for Godot thinking about was onstage smoking, of which there is a considerable amount also in this play. How do theatres, especially small ones like the Bush cope with the smoke in the auditorium (assumably they switch off the smoke alarms) yet still comply with health & safety regulations? Answers on a postcard please!