Sunshine on Leith – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By David Schuster, April 2018
A lone drinker in a run-down Edinburgh bar starts to strum a guitar, quickly and aggressively. Several other of the pub’s residents quickly join in with more guitars. With a clever change of lighting and a movement of chairs, the bar becomes an armoured car containing two soldiers, and the guitarists an armed guard, holding their instruments like guns. The sound builds as the pub’s house band come in, and we are off into a foot-stomping, hand-clapping version of ‘Sky Takes The Soul’.
Sunshine On Leith sets its stall out early: The Proclaimers songs are often ensemble pieces with strong Celtic rhythms, perfect for clapping, singing and, occasionally, whooping along to. The primary city pub set isn’t shabby-chic, this is just plain shabby, right down to the Formica-topped tables and stained lino floor. The powerful imagery grabs you and draws you into the lives of the characters who live and work here.
“Themes of love and loss”
The idea of a musical using The Proclaimers extensive catalogue of work was conceived by writer Stephen Greenhorn, who wanted a new Scottish musical for the Dundee Rep. It was created by Greenhorn in the period leading up to its 2007 opening, in collaboration with James Brining the Artistic Director in Dundee at that time. Brining is now Artistic Director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and has recreated the musical for this 2018 show.
The action is built around the fortunes of two ex-squaddies returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. It follows the ups and downs of their relationships with their girlfriends, and those of one of their families. It explores the themes of love and loss but also, relevantly in these Brexit dominated times, what constitutes the concepts of ‘home’ and ‘family’. That it does this in a fun and accessible way is tribute to the skills of the writer and Artistic Director.
The opening scene shifts to the two soldiers discussing their first night plans; Davey, played by Stephen Miller, and Paul-James Corrigan as Ally. We are quickly into another cracking song, ‘I’m On My Way’ and I’m already in awe of the cast who act, sing, play instruments, occasionally dance and deftly help shift the scenery as required. These are a talented team.
‘Let’s get Married’ is a lot of fun, with the cast all dressed in the green of the Hibernian football team performing a light-hearted and irreverent wedding ceremony, as the game is shown in the bar.
The play also has emotionally charged and poignant moments which give ample opportunity to the lead roles. Jean’s discovery of her husband’s long-kept secret at their fateful 30th wedding anniversary, starkly contrasts the drunken revelry of the guests with Jean’s horror at what she discovers. Actress Hilary Maclean manages to convey shock, anger and grief without any words, giving a tour de force visual performance.
Likewise, Phil McKee gives a strong portrayal as Rab, Jean’s husband. He excels in the awkward moments where he and his daughter (played by Nikki Patel, back in her home town of Leeds), are getting to know each other. Special mention should also be given to Tyler Colins, who shines in the role of comic bartender and lifts every scene in which he appears.
In a musical of many highlights, the title song ‘Sunshine On Leith’ stands out, with the male and female ensemble singing counterpoint. It is followed by two more hits from the Edinburgh duo; ‘Letter from America’ and their best-known song, ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)’ to finish the show.
Sunshine On Leith is ultimately life-affirming, and I guarantee that you will leave with your heart warmed, humming the tunes of The Proclaimers as you travel home.