Uisge-Beatha Gu Leor

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on UISGE-BEATHA GU LEOR at the Sunart Centre, Strontian, for The Scotsman 18.4.15.
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3 stars ***

THERE WAS plenty to celebrate, as the audience gathered at the Sunart Centre in Strontian for the world premiere of Iain Finlay Macleod’s new Gaelic-language version of Whisky Galore.  The weather was springlike, there were free tots of whisky on offer, and in the theatre space – arranged with pub-style round tables – the mood was cheerful.  In the nine years since it opened for business, the National Theatre of Scotland has been playing an ever-increasing role in promoting and developing Gaelic theatre; and it’s exhilarating to see the NTS opening and touring shows in venues all across Scotland.  Uisge-Beatha Gu Leor visits St. Columba’s in Edinburgh on Monday, before a four-week tour that takes it from Oban to Inverness and Crieff, via the western isles.

When it comes to the show itself, though – well, the truth is that Scotland has never been short of brilliant versions of  Compton Mackenzie’s grand old story, first published in 1947; and this ultra-brief 55-minute dash through the narrative is not really one of them.  From Alexander McKendrick’s great 1949 film, through Paul Godfrey magnificent’s 1990’s stage version set in a BBC radio studio, to the inspired musical version premiered at Pitlochry in 2009, this story has been well served by adaptations that delve deep into its clever, witty exploration of all the tensions of class and culture that underpinned the unity of wartime Britishness, and the even deeper tension between Presbyterian repression, and joyous celebration of whisky and freedom, that has always stalked Scottish culture.

In this miniature version, though – set in the present day, in an island pub short of whisky because of bad weather – Iain Finlay Macleod and his director Guy Hollands have time only for a quick trot through the two main love-stories that drive the plot, as the mobile-phone obsessed barmaid, her handsome boss, a newly-arrived visitor and a couple of regular customers act out the story.  The pace is fast and furious; the English surtitling is excellent, provided you’re close enough to read it, on the pub television screen.  In the end, though, Hollands’s gorgeous five-strong cast – a heroic Iain Macrae, MJ Deans, Calum McDonald, and two Irish actors, Roseanne Lynch and Julie Hale – can do little more than give us a brief introduction to this most complex and witty of tales; which is fine, but leaves us with a sense that, in this pub at least, we’ve been very slightly short-changed.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, today, St. Columba’s, Edinburgh, 20 April, and on tour until 15 May.

ENDS ENDS

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