James Graham, the author of Tory Boyz, goes from gay politicians to advertising execs with The Whisky Taster at the Bush. The hottest young advertising team, Nicola and Barney, have a secret weapon: Barney suffers from synaesthesia, the condition that causes the senses to all get bundled together, so for instance flavours have a sound, people's personalities have a smell, and everything has its own colour. He sees it as a disability since he's constantly overwhelmed by information, but in their business it's useful as he can invariably pick just the right elements to throw together in a campaign. The job in question is promoting a new vodka, and in an attempt to give the drink a more sophisticated image like the one whisky has, Nicola hires the title character to give them some ideas. Instead, he goes about trying to help Barney embrace his condition as a unique gift rather than a disability - and to deal with the fact that he's not-so-secretly in love with his colleague.
Kate O'Flynn steals the show early on as Nicola, a mouthy Croydon girl who's very aware she's seen as the less talented half of the partnership and keen to put the work in to improve herself. O'Flynn seems to be going through the History Boys as co-stars; last year it was Russell Tovey in A Miracle, this year it's Samuel Barnett (more recently known, of course, as Adult Simon in Beautiful People) playing Barney. I thought Barnett was miscast in his last major theatre outing, Dealer's Choice, but here he's playing to his strengths as a likeable, slightly frail character. The main trio is completed by John Stahl (recently in Being Human as the coroner who had an inconvenient pang of conscience) as the wild-looking Scottish wise-man, complete with kilt and enormous beard, and who has an air of the mystical about him to the point of having no name in the text other than "Whisky Taster."
Graham's play is very entertaining throughout, with a lot of funny lines, some moving moments and great performances all round in James Grieve's production, but I'm not sure how well it holds together. Thematically, the idea of the generation now in their 20s being left with less to hope for in life than their parents is rather rushed at the end, and I found it hard to buy the rather fluffy office environment in a business usually portrayed as so cut-throat (even Simon Merrells as their boss doesn't get to show a proper nasty side until the end.) The tone's also a bit odd, with the optimism of the first act going sour after the interval. So it's not perfect but there's still a lot to recommend it - including the great set, costume and lighting design by Lucy Osborne and James Farncombe. At the start, as Barney tries to suppress his synaesthesia, the set and costumes are completely monochrome. Once the Whisky Taster and his tartan arrive, colour starts to invade both in clothing and the set: When Barney's senses explode, multicoloured fluorescent lights flash everywhere, on the stage, under the actors' feet and around the audience. It's a successful gamble, as what could easily look like a mid-'80s Top of the Pops episode ends up creating a moment of theatrical magic instead.
The Whisky Taster by James Graham is booking until the 20th of February at the Bush Theatre.