Review: ‘The Whisky Taster’

The Whiskey Taster'

A fabulously imagined central character sits somewhat uncomfortably in a less original dramatic environment.

In James Graham’s imperfect but engaging new play, a fabulously imagined central character sits somewhat uncomfortably in a less original dramatic environment. Played by the brilliant Samuel Barnett (“The History Boys”), Barney has synasthesia, a real-life neurological condition that makes him experience colors as physical and emotional sensations. Graham struggles to make Barney’s sensitivity a condemning metaphor for the lack of originality and heart in today’s go-go-go society, but the character functions best as a key player in that most old-fashioned of narrative conceits: a love story.

Twenty-something Barney is one-half of an up-and-coming team of creatives in a contemporary London advertising firm, alongside rough-but-sexy Nicola (Kate O’Flynn). They use his synasthesia as their secret weapon in devising campaigns that uncannily capture the spirit of a product. When they get a chance at a major vodka campaign, Nicola asks a Scottish whisky distillery to send down an expert to help them frame their product’s distinctiveness.

Graham casts doubt about whether the improbable character who turns up — a hulking codger in a kilt and shaggy white beard (John Stahl) — was actually responding to Nicola’s call. Is he in fact an otherworldly presence who enables Barney to accept his exceptional sensitivities, and therefore acknowledge that he’s in love with Nicola?

James Grieve’s well-conceived production, as designed by Lucy Osborne, beautifully gives life to one of the loveliest ideas in Graham’s script: that the black-and-white onstage world only blooms into technicolor once Barney stops blocking his condition.

In an early scene, Barney comments on Nicola’s pink dress — but it’s gray. As he opens up to the Whisky Taster’s suggestion to “let it go,” brightly colored bars of neon flicker to life on, around, and under the stage, and an expression of combined relief and elation floods across Barnett’s extraordinarily expressive face.

There’s a lot that is tender, original and well-observed in the depiction of Barney and Nicola’s complex relationship. And it’s clear in Barnett and O’Flynn’s playing that underneath the laddish jokes and piss-taking there’s a strong current of desire and need. O’Flynn’s performance is initially so strident it’s off-putting. The strength of this choice is justified, however, as we learn more about the character’s underprivileged upbringing and just how much is at stake in her professional success.

But it’s difficult to connect this and other aspects of contemporary socio-political observation in Graham’s script to the central story. The team’s fortysomething boss, Malcolm (Simon Merrells), is a cliche of an empty-talking ad man. And an 11th-hour confrontation in which Malcolm accuses Barney’s generation of hating Gen-Xers for buying all the houses and ruining the planet comes out of nowhere (Merrells struggles valiantly with this thankless task).

Moreover, at the current moment of “Mad Men” mania, representations of this professional milieu almost inevitably feel unoriginal. The basic blunder here of portraying the upmarket rebranding of vodka as a new idea (as if Absolut, Grey Goose and Ketel One never existed) doesn’t help.

A final question mark hovers over the presentation of the Whisky Taster. The fact of his otherworldliness only partially excuses the naive presentation of Scottish culture as some kind of pure, folklorish antidote to the oppressive urbanity of London living; one wonders how this play would be received north of the English border.

Despite these flaws, all is very nearly forgiven in Graham’s heartbreakingly tender final scene, which offers a satisfying, sadly mature resolution. Rather like his central character, the 27-year-old playwright reveals a unique imagination that needs a bit more exposure to the outside world in order to fully flourish.

The Whisky Taster

Bush Theater, London; 81 seats; £15 $24 top


A Bush Theater presentation of a play in two acts by James Graham. Directed by James Grieve.


Sets and costumes, Lucy Osborne; lighting, James Farncombe; sound, Emma Laxton; production stage manager, Angela Riddell. Opened, reviewed Jan. 26, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.


Barney - Samuel Barnett Nicola - Kate O'Flynn Christopher - Chris Larkin Malcolm - Simon Merrells The Whisky Taster - John Stahl
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