Tag Archives: Christine Mackie

Whisky Business


New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 16th May, 2018


Based on true events, which were subsequently novelised by Compton Mackenzie, this adaptation by Philip Goulding arrives at the New Vic via Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre.  It bears the hallmarks of what could potentially be a hilarious show.

Framed as a play-within-a-play, the set-up is a fictional theatre group, the Pallas Players, are to stage the story of two remote islands where a dearth of whisky, due to the War, turns into a glut when a ship carrying thousands of bottles runs aground.  The group is all-female, presumably because in 1943, all the men are off warring. The cast of seven will play all the parts, islanders and outsiders alike, led by Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby, our narrator (among other roles). This framing device is a well-worn one.  The hapless troupe in The Play That Goes Wrong springs immediately to mind, and the mighty Oddsocks employ the same convention for all of their productions of Shakespeare and other classics.  Even Brecht uses it, when a load of factory workers present The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  And so, we are on familiar ground.

The performance style is akin to the wildly funny The 39 Steps where a cast of only four do everything.  Perhaps seven is too many to maintain the necessary madcap pace and to keep the sense of heightened theatricality constant.  Larger-than-life characterisations, quick changes and smart ideas for the staging ought to add up to a whole that is funnier than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, the overall effect is patchy.  This kind of approach works best with scenes that involve action (Waggett’s car and the cut-out sheep, for example)  Director Mark Babych’s staging ideas amuse but do not blow us away with their inventiveness.  We have seen it all before and in places (such as some of the staged ‘mistakes’) it comes across as a bit tired.

The cast, though, is indefatigable.  There is much to enjoy in the playing: the stuffy posturing of pompous Captain Waggett of the Home Guard (Isabel Ford) brings to mind the likes of Kenneth Connor and Arthur Lowe; Shuna Snow as young Sergeant Major Fred Odd gives a convincing portrayal – you could easily imagine Fred swaggering into the Queen Vic; but the scenes that really come alive are those that feature Christine Mackie as the fierce Mrs Campbell, mother to the timid George (Lila Clements).  Mackie is a real hoot as this formidable woman, keeping to the right side of caricature.  Joey Parsad has her moments as pub landlord Roderick, among other appearances, and Alicia McKenzie is great fun as Waggett’s wife Dolly.  There is a running joke: cast members share the role of the brazen and coquettish Annag, and also that of Paddy the Waggetts’ dog.  There is a lot of coming and going but it needs speeding up in places, and I don’t think the re-blocking of the action for the New Vic’s in-the-round arena always works.

And so, I’m afraid what should be heart-warming and intoxicating as any dram of the good stuff, turns out to be in need of a splash of soda to liven things up.


Shuna Snow as Fred, Isabel Ford as Waggett, and Christine Mackie as Paddy the dog (Photo: Joel Chester Fildes)

A Dry Spell

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th June, 2012

Written 20 years ago, Richard Shannon’s play has been revived to commemorate this year’s 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials. The cast of four works hard to conjure up a sense of this community and the period but, like a broken broomstick, it never really gets off the ground.

Magistrate Roger Nowell (Robert Calvert) is a self-important boor who, when his son is stillborn suspects the woman who tended his wife had a hand in it – literally. Chuck in some wild accusations from a lively beggar girl (Nisa Cole) and things are soon spiralling out of control. People (mainly women) are tried and executed because their superstitions contradict the prevailing institutionalised superstitions. Except they don’t. Calvert believes in God and angels; the ‘witches’ are supposed to believe in the Devil and demons. It’s like deciding which side of the Force you’re going to use. It’s disturbing to think that people will use superstition as a means to ruin people’s lives. But this was four centuries ago. In our modern, enlightened world that no longer happens – touch wood. That’s what I took from this production: a rather depressing view of humans. There are still those who cling to superstition ahead of fairness, kindness and common sense.

The main problem is it has all been done before and done better. Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible overshadows this play. That was a metaphor for the McCarthy anti-communist trials of the 1950s. Sabbat is less direct in its relevance. As a local history piece and one-for-the-tourists, it (like its characters) has good intentions but I found it lacking in local colour. Now on the road, away from its native Lancashire, it needs to bring a stronger flavour of that county to the rest of us who are not fortunate enough to live there. The dialogue is that heightened form of English you get in period pieces, devoid of slang and idiom. There is a lot of verbiage to wade through. “It was dark. There was no light,” Calvert explains at one point. The language seems to weigh the characters down.

It’s all a bit po-faced. Even in the few lighter moments, they’re all so earnest. I would have liked to see a bit of frivolity and liveliness before the trouble started in order to make the contrast with the darkest moments more effective. There is some evocative singing in between scenes and the cast is an efficient if joyless ensemble.

One scene stood out for me. Alice Nutter (Christine Mackie giving the strongest performance) has been arrested and charged. Calvert conducts her interrogation, trying to elicit a confession. Here is the crux of the play. An innocent woman caught in the wheels of his belief system. Alice details in a speech of beautifully dark imagery what the consequences of pursuing Calvert’s beliefs will be, describing the decay of the bodies in the gibbets that will line the roads. It is a moment of real power and energy – a woman speaking out against the injustices of the male-run system. At last, I thought, we can see what these actors are capable of.

The execution is staged symbolically, with headscarves being hoist on hooks. It seems like a bit of a let-down. I wanted something a bit more brutal and harder hitting to finish the thing off, after the late promise of that powerful scene. I left the theatre wondering if a documentary-style approach would have made the experience fresher, more immediate and more involving.