The first spark of an idea for this show came back in the noughties, when director James Brining decided it would be a good idea to create a brand new Scottish musical – writer Stephen Greenhorn came back with the thought of using the music of The Proclaimers and it took off from there. Since making its debut at the Dundee Rep in 2007, a hit film has been made (starring Jane Horrocks, George MacKay, Antonia Thomas, and others) and Brining has moved onto pastures new. However, the themes explored in the show seemed ever pertinent and, with a bit of tweaking, it has developed into this updated version. Starting out at West Yorkshire Playhouse, it has journeyed to Edinburgh and Coventry, and is about to make its way around a few more of Scotland’s cities.
Davy and Ally have just returned home to Leith after a spell in the army; they’re glad to have been discharged of their duties but are uncertain as to what lies ahead, taking stop-gap jobs in a local call centre. Ally has been with Davy’s sister Liz for a few years, and is now looking to the future – inspired by 30th wedding anniversary celebrations of Rab & Jean (Liz & Davy’s parents), he decides to pop the question. Davy, meanwhile, has been set up with Liz’s work friend Yvonne and they are tentatively pursuing this new relationship, in spite of several setbacks along the way. Rab and Jean’s seemingly unbreakable partnership is about to get rocked to its very core, as a face from Rab’s past returns to haunt him. Will their marriage survive? And what will the future hold for the other couples?
The perennial issue with jukebox musicals is the question of the book. So often there is a distinct superficiality to the plot and script, shoehorning songs in rather than using them to bridge gaps or enhance the storytelling – the attitude seems to be ‘as long as you have the ones everyone expects, it’ll all be fine’. Luckily there is no such problem with Sunshine on Leith. The Proclaimers’ songs are so rich in their own storytelling that it would be almost impossible for this to happen anyway, but Greenhorn’s three entwined and interconnected plots are the ideal vehicle for them to be performed with. In essence the plot lines are pretty straightforward, thus making it simple to follow, but there is also plenty of room for character development within that – and it has an incredible emotional depth to it. There’s no doubt in my mind: the West End needs it.
Making its way through 18 of Craig & Charlie Reid’s songs, David Shrubsole’s arrangements are now performed by an onstage band and a few actor-musicians (including the enthusiastic Tyler Collins as a guitar-playing barman). You can’t help but draw some comparisons with Once with this approach, as well as the overall feel of most of the music, but the show is Scottish through and through. Its lush strings and stunning a cappella sections evoke the natural landscape, and the rousing guitars are at one with the Scots’ spirit.
Teamed with this is some inventive choreography from Emily-Jane Boyle – the opening scene (set to Sky Takes The Soul) is especially memorable, with the ensemble joining forces to create the effects of gunfire and an explosion, and the dance to the title track is very moving, as Jean reflects on her relationship with Rab and remembers their younger selves. Boyle’s work also assists in smooth scene transitions, as the cast help out with rearranging props and the set. Colin Richmond’s design switches the action between various pubs, the family’s kitchen and the hospital (in the main); there are some great little details, such as referendum campaign posters plastered over the walls, and a platform allows height to be used effectively.
Thanks to a hard-working cast that appears to be enjoying every moment, a real sense of community comes across and gives the show depth & warmth from the get-go. All three of the couples are excellently paired; Phil McKee and Hilary Maclean as Rab and Jean have an easiness suggestive of a long relationship, and this is a similar case with Ally and Liz (Paul-James Corrigan and Neshla Caplan), though the cracks start to show early on. This contrasts well with Steven Miller and Jocasta Almgill as Davy and Yvonne – the early days of their relationship are far from easy, with the freshness & uncertainty really coming through.
There are some wonderful vocal displays, such as Maclean leading the way with an angry & urgent Hate My Love For You, and Almgill & Miller’s voices combining beautifully in Misty Blue and Then I Met You. Corrigan’s Ally is there with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step as he starts up I’m On My Way – and one of the most entertaining numbers of the show has to be Let’s Get Married, where Ally works out how to propose to Liz, with the help of the entire pub…
It’s almost unfair to single out any individual performances, but for me it’s Jocasta Almgill and Steven Miller that stand out. Their portrayal of Yvonne and Davy’s fledgling romance is compelling, playful and very human.
My verdict? A wonderfully warm hug of a show, perfectly produced and performed – and you know you’re gonna be humming the tunes all the way out of the theatre!
Sunshine on Leith ran at the Belgrade Theatre from 5-9 June 2018. Tickets for the remaining tour dates are available online or from individual box offices.