The Whisky Taster, The Bush, London

Raise your glass to a pacey comedy

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Tuesday 02 February 2010 01:00

The Noughties' never took off, did it, as a name?" declares one of the ad-agency executives in The Whisky Taster, a brilliantly pacey and culturally penetrating new comedy by James Graham. His younger twentysomething colleague, Nicola, admits "I completely didn't realise we were in a new decade, for ages". She speaks for many of us. Sometimes it's hard to register the bizarre changes that are happening all around you or to hang on to a sense of their weirdness. For example, as I live in Oxford, I have to use internet cafes a lot in London. It now feels almost normal to have a male neighbour in one of these ever-larger places who is watching hard-core pornography, while behind me, a visitor from a small African state, say, is using the place as his office, loudly doing currency-exchange deals via Skype.

Conveying the speed and the sheer informational and imagistic overload of our era is a hard task, but the theatre can have a salutary role in slowing down the rhythm and forcing one to concentrate on a few intensely focused aspects of life. Directed with a quick-witted, uncanny flair by James Grieve, The Whisky Taster manages to square the circle. It induces some of the exhilaration you get from the headlong knowingness of the best TV comedy, such as The Thick of It, while having the strong metaphoric framework of inspired theatre. And in its central protagonist, it fields a cleverly angled and coded symbol of the age.

Part of the great pleasure of the piece lies in the way the superb cast fly with dialogue that has its ear to the future (a "viral" marketing campaign aims "to plant a few agents provocateurs on Twitter"). Graham has picked up on the way a lot of young people now can't say or gesture anything except in a parodic, "mock" fashion, as though not wanting to be seen committing themselves in a world where everything is so provisional. And there's the deftly deployed savvy about the twisted tricks of the ad-world and its debatable double-bluff whereby, say, you place a product on the market at deliberately too high a level, in the hope that on its "deposition to the mainstream", you'll be able to clean up.

At the heart of the play, though, there's Barney, brilliantly played by Samuel Barnett, who suffers from synaesthesia which means that his neural pathways (evoked in the coloured-neon circuitry that zigzags round the Perspex casing of Lucy Osborne's splendidly objective/subjective in-the-round design) overheat and frazzle This causes him to spasm and to vomit up in a chaotic catalogue all the associative attributes which the condition makes him project on to phenomena. He seems to represent, as a victim of this dubious gift, a benign version of the pressurised lack of discrimination of our times. As they debate the merits of a new vodka, he is brought into wonderfully suggestive contention with the granitic Scots whisky-taster of the title (the formidable yet gentle John Stahl) who knows that the best things need to age and can be the better for a bit of impurity. This wise monolith turns out to be the father of lippy Nicola (spot-on Kate O'Flynn). She has a work-partnership blanche with the shy, self-mistrustful Barney. He'd like to turn their relationship a less chaste colour.

By these means and metaphors, the very talented author manages to pack in unpretentiously many of our current preoccupations. This staging is a further indication of why some think that its producer, Josie Rourke, the Bush's artistic director, has the right to be considered a strong contender for the top job at the National on that hopefully far-distant day when Nick Hytner decides to relinquish the reins.

To 20 February (020 8743 5050)

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