JOYCE MCMILLAN on WHISKY GALORE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, SISTER ACT at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and SPAIN at the Citizens’ Stalls Studio, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 3.11.11
Whisky Galore! 4 stars ****
Sister Act 4 stars ****
Spain 3 stars ***
FREEDOM AND WHISKY gang thegither: or so said our national bard, Robert Burns, in a fit of despair over the conduct of Scottish MP’s in trying to restrict the sale of the national tipple. Nothing much changes in politics, of course, and the debate over alcohol and tax still rages. No work of literature, though, ever made the case for drink more persuasively than Compton Mackenzie’s fine 1947 comic novel Whisky Galore, immortalised two years later in Alexander McKendrick’s much-loved film; and that exuberant celebration of Scotland’s national drink continues, in this timely and warming autumn revival of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s musical version of the story, first staged in 2009, when it became the most successful show in the theatre’s 60 year history.
Written by Shona McKee McKail and Ian Hammond Brown, this stage version of Whisky Galore features a slightly mind-blowing range of musical styles, from old-fashioned Lerner-and-Loewe romance to wildly imaginative reworkings of traditional music rhythms; and Ken Alexander’s production – in that free-flowing 21st century style that involves each member of the cast also playing an instrument, and making up the band – has perhaps lost a slight edge of satirical energy and glamour since its first run.
Yet it’s still an explosively inventive show about the shared life of the twin islands of Great and Little Todday, the one Protestant, the other Catholic, and both surviving under the increasing pressures of the Second World War. Like Mackenzie’s original novel, this stage version offers an intriguing mixture of outrageous Island stereotypes and serious modern dilemmas. Catholic Peggy Macroon wants to marry the Anglican Sergeant Odd, her friend Catriona wants to join the WAAF’s, and nobody can be bothered with Captain Waggett, the local representative of the British state.
Yet on the other hand, all problems are soon solved when the SS Cabinet Minister runs aground on Todday with its famous cargo of 33,000 cases of whisky. In the traditional Scottish stand-off between intense puritanism and wild bursts of hedonism, the story sides comprehensively with the hedonists; and in Ken Harrison’s witty set, the whisky is literally portrayed as a deus ex machina, descending on a golden cloud to relieve the misery of the people. Alexander’s fine 12-strong cast – led by Michael Mackenzie as Captain Macroon, Carol Ann Crawford as the formidable Mrs. Campbell, and Dougal Lee as Father McAlister, the Catholic priest – enjoy themselves to the hilt, as they twirl around the stage embracing musical styles from jazz to Hebridean work-song. And there’s a fine mix of the Gaelic language in the script too; in a show that is mainly just a jolly entertainment, but that also represents a sharp comic portrait of British society, with all its faultlines of class, culture, language, and faith, from an age when today’s explicit multiculturalism was just a distant dream .
Not many people know this; but almost 30 years ago, during a long-forgotten Mayfest, Whoopi Goldberg came to Glasgow, and performed a solo show about the sexual awakening of a woman who thought of herself as ugly, at what is now the CCA. She wasn’t famous then, of course, but she was a remarkable performer; and ever since, despite her growing Hollywood success, Goldberg’s career has continued to touch on work that is about the freeing of the spirit, from old restrictions of race, gender, and class, or from plain prejudice against women who don’t look like Barbie-dolls.
So it’s good to be able to report that the stage version of Goldberg’s hit 1992 film Sister Act, now at the Edinburgh Playhouse in a touring production co-produced by Goldberg herself, retains that exhilarating freedom of spirit, despite its obvious credentials as a hilarious piece of showbiz fun, full of improbable plot-lines and crazy optimism. The heroine, Deloris Van Cartier, is a Philadelphia nightclub singer – black and gorgeous – who has to go into hiding in a convent when she witnesses a murder committed by her lover, the wicked gangster Curtis. A few months on, she has converted the nuns into a hot gospel-and-soul singing combo, rescued the convent from financial ruin, and driven the Mother Superior almost to distraction with her belief that a bit of soul music and booty-shaking can save the world.
Towards the end, the show merges into a kind of explosion of bad taste, as the nun’s sparkly showtime outfits become ever more absurd. At the heart of it, though, there’s a decent story about a young woman learning to be something more than a violent man’s partner and eye-candy; about female solidarity; and even about the point where human potential and religious faith come together in sheer joy. The songs are exuberant, the choreography both brilliant and cheeringly innocent; and in Cynthia Erivo as Doloris, and Coronation Street’s Denise Black as the Mother Superior, it has two fine leading ladies, whose final reconciliation almost literally brings the house down.
There’s a quest for freedom, too in James Ley’s thoughtful monologue Spain, playing at the Citizens’ Stalls Studio as part of this year’s Glasgay! festival. Co-written by Mark Kydd, who also performs it, this 70-minute story covers twenty years in the life of Alistair, a gay guy from Scotland who goes to live in Gran Canaria, in search of warmth, light, love, and sexual freedom. It’s not an original story; it touches on the pleasure and pain of promiscuity, the dangers of involvement with a married man, and the quest for enough self-esteem to make a rewarding relationship possible. Yet the texture of Ley’s writing is vivid and intense enough to make the journey worthwhile. And it invites some serious thought about the enduring myth that if we travel far enough in geographical distance, we can somehow leave ourselves behind; whereas in fact, the real process of liberation involves inner journeys that are always daunting, even when we undertake them right here at home.
Whisky Galore at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Sister Act at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and Spain at the Citizens’ Stalls Studio, Glasgow, all untl 12 November.