Imagine tasting red or smelling a season. Imagine having all five senses firing off at everything that just one of them experiences. This is the world synaesthete advertising wonder kid Barney inhabits in James Graham’s The Whiskey Taster.
Set in an advertising agency where Samuel Barnett’s restrained, controlled Barney and Kate O’Flynn’s gawky, loud Nicola are pitching for an important vodka contract, Graham’s new play is a tale of being true to yourself and experiencing life whatever the consequences may be.
Barney’s monochrome world, a grey kingdom in which he tries to block out his sensory power to protect himself from the pain of overexposure, is shaken up by the arrival of John Stahl’s Scottish whiskey taster, a man who looms like a mythical giant amid double-speaking marketers. While they talk of brand awareness and demographics, his rich, rolling poetry flows like a mountain river; powerful, unstoppable with a natural mysticism. He is the voice of ages in a world that thinks only of the now. He is the key that can open a new world to Barney, but is that a good thing?
Graham’s script catches the stark differences between the two worlds of fast-living London and the whiskey taster’s Scottish lair. While Barney, Nicola and boss Malcolm – played by Simon Merrells as the cool manager who is down with the kids, wants to be your friend but doesn’t want you to do too well in case you overshadow him – speak in short, sharp bursts, interlinking and overlapping, the whiskey taster takes his time to deliver speeches, savouring his words as he would his whiskey.
Director James Grieve, designer Lucy Osborne and sound designer Emma Laxton have worked together to create a production that helps the audience to understand more clearly – and in many different ways – the life Barney experiences, though to say too much about how would spoil the discovery.
To focus too much on Barney’s synaethesia would do the play a disservice; it is a piece about love and about acceptance, a piece about different generations and about living right now. It is, like a good whiskey, complex; it can be both sweet and bitter on the tongue, harsh on the throat and still leave you with warmth in the very pit of your stomach.