Theatre reviews: Whisky Galore – A Musical! | Cooking With Elvis

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IN ONE SENSE, it's no laughing matter. Compton Mackenzie's 1947 novel Whisky Galore is a story about a small Hebridean island – or pair of islands – so addicted to whisky that when supplies run out during the Second World War, the whole fabric of local life and society begins to totter.

"Men," says one village wife, "they're strange with the drink, and strange without it", and Mackenzie's novel famously describes how relief appears in the shape of a cargo ship, the SS Cabinet Minister, which runs aground on Little Todday with 50,000 cases of best whisky aboard.

The story was immortalised in Alexander Mackendrick's famous 1949 film, which knocked a few political edges off Mackenzie's original tale to transform it into a feel-good Ealing comedy. But it's to the novel, rather than the film, that writer Shona McKee McNeil and lyricist/composer Ian Hammond Brown have looked, in creating the brand-new Whisky Galore – A Musical! that is the flagship production of this year's all-Scottish season at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. And the result is a real barnstorming success of a show, lighthearted and hugely enjoyable, yet – like the waters between Great and Little Todday – full of startlingly sharp moments and hidden depths, in its comic observation both of island life and of its complex interaction with the British state in its finest hour.

At heart, of course, the story has something to say about the timeless tension between the controlled and pious aspects of the human psyche, and the Dionysian urge to cut loose and enter into altered states.

The islanders, Mackenzie suggests, have struck a unique balance between these two impulses that the rest of British society struggles to understand. But he also has plenty to say – often to hilarious effect – about the interaction between Calvinist Great Todday and Catholic Little Todday, one of the key tensions in Scottish life even now; and he is frank about the islanders' frequent difficulty in seeing much difference between the big Hitler they are fighting abroad and the little Hitlers of the island scene, including the local military brass, Captain Waggett.

None of this would count for much, though, if Ian Hammond Brown had not provided the show with a repertoire of almost 20 fine songs, at least half a dozen of them truly inspired, particularly on the comic side of the story; and if director Ken Alexander, and the 14-strong Pitlochry ensemble, had not made such a superb job of transforming it into a witty and joyous stage event.

Ken Harrison's island seascape design is funny and sensitive, Ruth Henderson's dance routines are often eye-poppingly clever in their mix of sly cultural reference and big-stage joie de vivre. And as for the music – well, with eight of the cast doubling as live musicians, including the gorgeous Shirley Darroch blazing with star quality on trombone, the show combines huge live energy with a touch of 1940s glamour in a way that has music director Jon Beales, at the keyboard, sometimes working hard to keep order, rather than struggling to inject some life into things.

In the course of a story about true love trying to find a way against a backdrop of drouth, bigotry, puritanism and the occasional anti-English sentiment, Whisky Galore inevitably touches on some of the stereotypes of Scotland that haunt the rest of the Pitlochry season. But this is a story that can barely set up a stereotype without immediately and joyfully subverting it. And in honouring that aspect of Mackenzie's fine novel, McNeil and Brown have created – at last – a new Scottish musical to celebrate; the first in Pitlochry's history and well worth the wait.

Alcohol also looms large in Lee Hall's surreal 1999 comedy Cooking With Elvis, now revived in a Scots-accented midsummer production at the Tron. Here, though, booze takes on a more familiar and destructive urban aspect, as our heroine Jill's comely middle-aged mother tanks down the white wine to dull her despair and to work up Dutch courage for her loveless affair with an unpromising younger man, a baker called Stuart.

The problem is that Jill's Dad, a surveyor turned Elvis impersonator, has been severely injured in a car accident following a row with Mum and is now a wheelchair-bound "cabbage", drooling in a corner. Mum has taken to drink and toy-boys, Jill has taken to obsessive cookery, and Stanley the tortoise roams the house, getting under everyone's feet.

Hall's comedy, presented by Jill in 22 short sharp scenes with snappy titles, is probably one of the filthiest plays ever seen on the British stage, so frank about the sexual needs and gropings of all concerned that it's definitely not for those of a nervous disposition. But it has a weird manic energy – in its evocation of what's left of family life once all taboos and constraints have gone – that is conjured up with impressive energy in Andy Arnold's production. As the half-dead patriarch in the chair, Gavin Mitchell, of Still Game, is not only a convincing basket-case, but also – in moments of dream and fantasy – a terrific pseudo-Elvis. Deirdre Davis turns in a fabulous performance as Jill's wrecked but likeable Mum.

By the end of the show, in what Hall calls the "unbearably glib finale", Mum has ditched the booze and boyfriends and is seen cooking a souffl in a pinny. Jayd Johnson's poignant Jill is delighted, after an adolescence spent feeling abused and confused by the world without waymarks in which she finds herself growing up. But it's easy to imagine the residents of Little Todday shaking their heads, and guessing that whatever has taken Mum away from the drink, it won't be long before she's back on it again, drowning her sorrows, and having a laugh.

&#149 Whisky Galore – A Musical! is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 17 October. Cooking With Elvis is at the Tron, Glasgow, until 25 July.