Festival Theatre Studio, Edinburgh – until 7 October 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Spirited and melodic, the first small-scale run of The Sunshine Ghost is not yet the finished article but shows signs of developing into something popular. Taking (very loose) inspiration from the 1935 film comedy The Ghost Goes West, Richard Ferguson and Andy Cannon’s musical features a Scottish castle that is transported to Florida by an American millionaire as a present for his astrologer fiancee – complete with the ghost of a Jacobite chieftain.
Produced by Scottish Theatre Producers in association with the King’s and Festival Theatres, the production is on tour around Scotland, with the possibility of a larger scale run in the future no doubt in everyone’s mind.
The story is set in 1958, and most of the material could easily have come from that era, being more reminiscent of a light postwar musical comedy than of more recent trends in musical theatre. It is none the worse for that, being largely a frothy and likeable affair.
Only a couple of jokes and the odd rap-tinged number take any account of the 21st century; there are moments, such as the cringing comedy Italian accent, that should be left firmly in the 50s.
The songs have definite signs of promise. The tunes have an attractive flow to them, while the lyrics feature some intriguing rhymes, both clever and deliberately groan-inducing. They rarely stand out as being potential showstoppers, but with the odd tweak they have real potential, particularly if backed by a larger band and chorus.
Not that there is anything wrong with the performers here. Composer Ferguson provides sterling accompaniment as well as being cleverly integrated into the production. Helen Logan, as celebrity astrologer Astrobeth, manages to send up musical theatre divas without going completely over the top; Barrie Hunter’s millionaire Glen Duval similarly has a comic edge without ever becoming ridiculous.
Neshla Caplan gives Duval’s daughter Jacqueline a tuneful likeability. John Kielty’s Highland chieftain draws on a large number of cliches from myth and literature while still managing to be an interesting character and performance in its own right.
Becky Minto’s design is functional and inventive in the best touring theatre tradition, and it is constantly noticeable that ideas and influences are crammed into a show that speeds merrily by under the direction of Ken Alexander.
In the end, however, there is perhaps too much variety. The story seems to be speeding off in several directions and some scenes come off more like genre set pieces than part of a coherent narrative. The character played by Cannon himself is most indicative of this. Lachlan Douglas-Hamilton is a figure who comes more from the Scottish variety tradition, acting more like a character from a pantomime than one from musical theatre.
The plot would function perfectly well without him, yet he effectively holds the whole thing together, and is probably the best thing in it. His skill and grace as a storyteller mean that he is always catching the eye, but never to the detriment of others.
While this is very definitely a first run at something that could become much bigger, there are things that need to be addressed. A larger scale would lose the reassuringly homespun element that here compensates for the cod-Scottish elements and old-fashioned approach.
A tighter focus is needed, while some of the extraneous elements require pruning – Kielty’s lament for his past is well done, but the last thing the world needs is yet another song about Charles Edward Stewart. While the theatrical portrayal of couthie Scots and misguided but big-hearted Americans has been a proven winner in the past, this needs a stronger narrative drive if it is to succeed on its own terms.