Euan Martin & Dave Smith: The Whisky Matures

22 May 2010 in Dance & Drama

EUAN MARTIN and DAVE SMITH recount the chequered emergence of their stage musical Whisky Kisses ahead this month’s inaugural tour

THE LONG AWAITED official premiere of the full production of Whisky Kisses before a sold out house at Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown on the opening day of May is the culmination of an extended journey that has taken in the Highland Quest, various snippets and excerpts in performance, and a full scale student production at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The show is touring throughout the month, and is a considerable testimony to both the talent and the persistence of its co-creators, Euan Martin and Dave Smith of Right Lines Theatre Company, and their various collaborators.

Euan Martin and Dave Smith (photo - Callum MacKay)

Euan Martin and Dave Smith (photo - Callum MacKay)

Martin and Smith wrote the book and lyrics, and James Bryce composed the music. Right Lines’ track record takes in a number of successful productions, including The Accidental Death of An Accordionist (revived in a co-production with Mull Theatre in 2008), Who Bares Wins, Watching Bluebottles and The Great Tartan Haggis of Tooriebrochan.

Whisky Kisses recounts the tale of the battle for the final bottle of Glenigma whisky. Two international whisky collectors from the USA and Japan converge on a remote Highland distillery to compete for the fabled malt whisky – and perhaps a lot more.

But let’s go back to the beginning ….

NORTHINGS: Euan, how did this show get its start?

EUAN MARTIN: It all started in Eden Court when we were talking with Colin Marr shortly after the tour of Who Bares Wins. We were looking at possibilities for moving that show on, and in the course of the conversation he told us about the competition they were planning to launch with Cameron Mackintosh, the Highland Quest for a new Scottish musical.

This would have been in January of 2005, and he explained the whole idea of the Quest, which was then launched in April. As a Highland theatre company we simply thought why not? We had never done a musical before, but as you know we have done lots of shows with music in them.

The immediate crack, of course, was that it might not be terribly exciting to have the music written by two former drummers, so we engaged the services of Jim Bryce at that point – he is an old friend of Dave’s from school days in Aberdeen.

We went through the various stages of the competition writing just as much as we needed to, and scraped through each round to the finals. It was a very useful process in many ways, and we met lots of people along the way.

NORTHINGS: And how was the experience of reaching the final?

EUAN MARTIN: The week of the final in Ullapool was probably the most exciting of my career in theatre, although unfortunately Dave was in New Zealand, so could hardly have been further away on the planet!

Those of us who were there had a great week, and we met lots of people from the world of theatre that it would probably have taken another ten years to make contact with, so it was a really focused experience, very intense but great fun. James Brining from Dundee Rep was our director, and we had Hilary Brooks as musical director, and they knocked it into shape to the point where we almost won.

We were allowed to select some of the actors, so we brought in Alyth McCormack and Ron Emslie, both of whom had worked with us before, so they have been on the project all the way through.

Whisky Kisses director, Ian Grieve (in white shirt), puts the cast through their paces (photo - Callum MacKay)

Whisky Kisses director, Ian Grieve (in white shirt), puts the cast through their paces (photo - Callum MacKay)

NORTHINGS: Was a production at Dundee Rep a possibility?

EUAN MARTIN: Yes and no. There was a bit of interest from them and from elsewhere, but we didn’t have the ready made full script at that point – there was a script, but it wasn’t ready to go, and things change very fast in the world of the big theatres. It was always our intention to push the show on, though. It was a big achievement for our wee company.

[Dave Smith joins us at this point in the conversation]

DAVE SMITH: Especially given the good response, particularly from the audience, and the amount of work that we had put into it – we didn’t want to just walk away from it.

NORTHINGS: So you made the final and unofficially (since they only named a winner) but by common consent finished second, although a lot of people felt you would have been deserving winners. What happened next?

EUAN MARTIN: We got a bit of money from Highland 2007 to develop the show further, and held workshops in Findhorn in the summer of 2007. Then we performed in the showcase at DNA in October, which was a rehearsed reading and singing of the first half of the show, and made another useful stage in the process.

We were then invited to do a smaller excerpt at the closing Gala for Highland 2007 at Eden Court, which again was recognition that although we hadn’t won the Quest, we had achieved something.

DAVE SMITH: Just before that there was also the CATS awards – that’s not Cats the musical, it’s the Scottish critics awards [Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland]. We were invited to do a piece of work at the awards ceremony, and that was also good exposure.

EUAN MARTIN: Eden Court helped us out financially with that – they still had an option on the show at that point. So that takes us up to early 2008, and we applied for Arts Council funding and got knocked backed on that occasion.

NORTHINGS: And then it actually got on stage as a complete show at the Edinburgh Fringe, courtesy of the RSAMD in Glasgow. How did that show come about?

EUAN MARTIN: What happened was that Andrew Panton of the RSAMD, who directed the Fringe production, ran into Barry Hunter in the pub in Glasgow just after Barry had been up to do the Highland 2007 Gala for us. Andrew had been one of the directors on Highland Quest, and thought that it might be a good piece for the students to do for their annual Edinburgh show, and he got in touch with us.

We knew there might be pitfalls in terms of age appropriateness for the characters and so on, but we balanced up whether it might move the whole project forward or hinder it, and we decided it would be beneficial.

Director Ian Grieve (in white shirt) in discussion with the actors (photo - Callum MacKay)

Director Ian Grieve (in white shirt) in discussion with the actors (photo - Callum MacKay)

DAVE SMITH: The most interesting part of that process was workshopping it with the students down in Glasgow, which we did for a week. We were suddenly in a position of working with a completely different cast and different age group, and that was a very instructive process. The students worked really hard on it, but it wasn’t really what we were after as a show, although as another stage in the process it was helpful.

EUAN MARTIN: The week in Glasgow was great, but I think it would be fair to say that the production wasn’t what we had hoped. The issue of age appropriate performers was particularly difficult, especially because it was a brand new show and people didn’t really know what age these characters should have been. It was an interesting experience, but we felt there was a better show in there bursting to get out, and we kept working on it in accord with that old truism that musicals aren’t written, they are re-written.

DAVE SMITH: We had adapted it for the Edinburgh production, mainly to get the length down a bit, so the production we are now doing has expanded a bit again. It was 90 minutes in Edinburgh, and will probably be nearer two hours in this tour.

NORTHINGS: So you eventually got the necessary funding to take it to a full show with your own cast and production?

EUAN MARTIN: The main funding has come from The National Lottery through the Scottish Arts Council, and the Highland Cultural Fund helped us bridge the final gap. HIE have also helped with development funding.

NORTHINGS: And you have a new director?

EUAN MARTIN: We had approached Mark Saunders initially, who has worked with us before, but he wasn’t going to be able to fit it in – he is a lecturer at the RSAMD and was fully committed there. So we were on the hunt for directors, and thereby hangs a wee tale.

I went down to Pitlochry to see Whisky Galore at the Festival Theatre last summer. I got the second last ticket in the house for the last matinee, and sitting next to me was Ian Grieve, who had got the last ticket.

NORTHINGS: Clearly fate, then?

EUAN MARTIN: It must have been. We had a good chat in the interval, and he mentioned he would be free of his current commitments by March, so if we were looking for a director … and so here he is.

Rehearsals for Whisky Kisses (photo - Callum MacKay)

Rehearsals for Whisky Kisses (photo - Callum MacKay)

NORTHINGS: And who have you cast this time?

EUAN MARTIN: We have Alyth McCormack again as Mary at the distillery. George Drennan is Ben, the American collector, and Masashi Fujimoto, who people might know from Channel 4’s Mr Banzai, plays Yomo. Ron Emslie is back as Lachie the crusty old distillery worker, and his sidekick Dunc is Paul Harper-Swan. Natalie Toyne, a South African playing an Australian, is Alice, and Trevor Allan Davies is Giles.

Trevor is an old friend of Jim’s and also an Alexander Technique practitioner, so if anyone gets a sore back we are sorted. Kinny Gardner plays Jeff, and is also choreographing the show, and Karen MacIver is our Musical Director. She will be playing on stage, and some of the company can also play instruments.

NORTHINGS: And what are you doing about the stage set, which presumably has to fit quite a variety of venues?

DAVE SMITH: I’ve designed it a bit like an accordion, in actual fact. We knew we didn’t have the big open spaces that you get in musicals in many of the venues we were going to, so we have tried to create as much of that as possible within the limits of the stages, and try to convey a lot through small details in the set itself.

We built it up at Arts in Motion in Evanton. The backdrops are all physical rather than projections, but we do have one wee projection in the show. We wanted to keep the tactile feel of theatre and cloths and so on.

NORTHINGS: And you aims for the show now that it is finally happening as you conceived it?

EUAN MARTIN: Well, we’d like it to be good and we’d like people to come and see it and like it! And we want it to be fun. It’s been a long time in the making, and we are quite proud of it, and we really feel that this will push Right Lines on a bit. It is the biggest project we have done on our own.

DAVE SMITH: That’s right. Basically we’d like to give people a proper rich theatre experience in the village halls and small venues that we are visiting.

Whisky Kisses is on tour throughout May (see the Right Lines link below for dates).

© Kenny Mathieson, 2010