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The Whisky Taster

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Here’s a rum do: a play about selling the sizzle in the drinks market in a cocktail glass of a transparent design with the eponymous taster turning up at the advertising agency in full Scottish fig: white beard, tartan kilt, knobbly knees, the lot.

The taster is played with glowering command by John Stahl, lately pinning together ensemble productions at the Globe and the RSC but here somewhat floundering to find a foothold.

He’s not alone. James Graham’s play, directed by James Grieve, newly appointed artistic director of Paines Plough, is signally impressive in this respect alone: it seems to amount to more or less nothing at all but is performed with the sort of conviction that convinces an audience it must have missed something.

The advertising whizz kids have called in the old man to help verify their campaign of making vodka taste like whisky. The satirical, not very original, point being that you can convince people of anything if you sell it hard enough.

Samuel Barnett as thrusting young executive Barney with an unusual gift for translating smell, tastes and colours into words - the talent of synaesthesia - and Kate O'Flynn as the hysterically ruthless Nicola, launch their rivalry, and their campaign, against a “city that never sleeps” background that Barney is suddenly finding too overpowering.

They are joined at crucial moments by a senior accounts manager in a ludicrously checked shirt and very fine shoes (Simon Merrells, last seen as Marlon Brando in the Berkoff On the Waterfront) and a languidly disinterested and confused manager in a pinstriped suit (Chris Larkin).

They can all sing a rainbow - Graham’s script has bright flashes of colour and doesn’t mind about meaning too much, and reminded me of early Stephen Poliakoff - and the two hours flash by pleasantly enough. The drink has a good nose, a fine bush possibly, and slips down easily. But we’ve all been conned at the end, which is maybe the point the show is making.

There’s another amazing design by Lucy Osborne, with the audience ranged, traverse-style, either side of a Perspex stage that resembles one of those large, fashionable canapé trays, lit with flashing neon strips by James Farncombe with clever sound by Emma Laxton.


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