Ken Alexander On ... Whisky Galore
Date: 8 September 2011
Whisky Galore - a Musical! was the most popular show in Pitlochry Festival Theatre's history. They have chosen to revive it as part of the 60th Anniversary year. We spoke to the show's director, Ken Alexander.
Alexander, formerly Artistic Director at The Byre, St. Andrews and Perth Theatre, has directed many musicals. They include the Scottish professional premieres of Into the Woods, The Secret Garden and Richard Taylor's version of Whistle Down the Wind, as well as Oliver!, Little Shop of Horrors and Dames at Sea.
It is quite unusual for Pitlochry to mount a show outwith the main season. Is that a first?
Yes, last year the theatre produced its first pantomime but this is the first time Pitlochry has produced a stand-alone production outside of the Summer Festival Repertoire season.
You must have been very pleased with the critical and audience reaction to the first production 2 years ago?
We were amazed and delighted with the response. We always thought it would be a popular show because of the fondness people have for the original novel and the Ealing film. However what really took us by surprise was how completely the audience took the musical version to their hearts. Not only did it start selling out very quickly but people were coming back to time and time again, it developed a real cult following. I think what audiences really enjoyed. apart from the 'musicalisation' of the story, was the spirit of fun and energy created by the 14 strong ensemble of actor/musicians.
It must be quite rare for a new musical to have such a high profile production in Scotland?
There are few examples, but I think theatre-makers in Scotland have at last woken up to musical theatre as a valuable and creative, multi-disciplinary art-form. It was good to see the success of Dundee Rep's 'Sunshine on Leith' too, but it is very rare to see home-grown full-scale new musicals being produced on the main stages in Scotland.
Is the musical version based on the film or on the original Compton McKenzie novel?
It's completely based on the novel. The film is a good hearted take on the book but what the musical version explores in more detail is the gentle satire of the original novel. There are two islands in the book (just one in the film). Great Todday is Protestant and Little Todday is Catholic, so not only do you get the rivalry between the faiths and the islanders but you also have the fun of exploring the tensions and rivalries between the Islands and mainland Scotland, the tension between Scotland and England, and then the tension between Britain and its Allies and Hitler's Germany. There is a lot of fun too in seeing a Westminster Government trying to impose order and regulation on the far-flung parts of War-time Britain - particularly with the contrary, independant-minded nature of Scotland and its Islands, which Compton Mackenzie observed and captured beautifully.
Is the cast the same this time round?
The new version is for a cast of 12, the 2009 production was expanded to 14 as we were able to co-opt a couple of extra members of the Festival Ensemble into the musical. Also, due to availability, there have been a few changes with four new cast members joining us for the revival. However this has allowed us to expand the number of players within the company and the range of instruments we can use.
Does casting an actor/musician production present any particular difficulties in Scotland?
Yes, it does! When we were casting the first production it was one of the most difficult shows I had been asked to cast up to that point. We wanted to get native Scots speakers and we needed actors who could create a wide range of characters between them, sing well, move well and play instruments to a good standard. The pool of people was therefore quite small and in demand. However it was really interesting and exciting to discover the talents that were around - hidden amongst people we knew already and in people who were new to us, sought out from all over the UK.
Have you made any changes for the revival?
Yes. We've taken the opportunity to tighten the first act of the show, in the light of our experience of the first production, and we have done a major rewrite on the second act - developing the plot a little further, cutting a couple of songs and writing two new songs. So, hopefully, this new version will have even more to enjoy!
Given the reaction in Pitlochry, Whisky Galore would seem ideal fare for touring to other Scottish theatres. Are there any plans for that to happen.
There are no plans at the moment but we hope to get more theatre managers and producers along to see this new version and hopefully this might lead to a further life for the production. I believe it has enormous commercial potential. Interestingly, there has been some interest from theatres in England because, of course, the Ealing Comedy film of the story is known and loved throughout the UK. I also think it would play especially well in places like Canada and Australia.
Do you have any projects after Whisky Galore?
Next up is panto! I'm delighted to be going to the New Theatre in Cardiff to direct 'Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates' with Christopher Biggins and Paul Zerdin. I love panto and am really looking forward to this one.
- by Keith Paterson
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