King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 18 June 2022
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
With the Edinburgh King’s set to bring down the curtain for a refurbishment, what could be better than a good old Sunshine on Leith singsong to send it on its way?
That’s the idea, anyway, and by the end of this Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Capital Theatres co-production, many audience members were on their feet, clapping and whooping to ‘500 Miles’.
Remember that amazing climax to the 2013 film adaptation of the Proclaimers’ jukebox musical, as a declaration of love segues into a flash mob performance of the beloved hit. The folded arms, the jerky marching movements – it’s glorious, cathartic and has me blubbing every time.
Not here. Here it was the main cast and ensemble in a straightforward line, most of them carrying musical instruments. Musical instruments are fantastic, but they’re not conducive to choreography. Of course, it’s not always fair to compare one production to another, but the loss of the life-affirming dance is indicative of the problem with this show.
About a decade ago there was a trend for musicals to dump the traditional orchestra, so that instead of musicians in the pit or off to the side, the actors would carry and play instruments. I have never seen the concept work – it’s distracting. That’s what we get here.
The staging has a cute model village of Edinburgh on stilts above the playing area. Below, the band members have their spots, while in front there’s room for the odd kitchen or bar to be dragged on for the main cast to play out Stephen Greenhorn’s script.
The story, set in Leith’s halcyon pre-tram days, is simple, and clever. Pals Davy and Ally are back from the Army and trying to settle into civilian life. Davy takes up again with nurse girlfriend Liz while Ally, her brother, embarks on a romance with Yvonne, her colleague.
Davy and Liz’s parents, Rab and Jean, are about to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary when someone new steps into their lives… The set-up motivates the inclusion of Proclaimers favourites while telling a tale of different kinds of love – romantic, family, friends and community.
What’s crucial to the success of the show is an emotional connection between character and audience, which is where this production falters.
Those musicians don’t stay at the back for long – they’re also the ensemble, coming forward to flesh out scenes, thrusting guitars, fiddles, even a double bass into the faces of the main cast. Imagine an alternate Leith, filled with grinning strolling players who follow you around, interrupting your most private moments.
The ensemble members are admittedly superb, multi-tasking between instruments, delivering lines with comic panache and singing their hearts out. The core cast – Connor Going, Blythe Jandoo, Rhiane Drummond, Keith Jack, Alyson Orr, Meg Chaplin and Keith Macpherson – are individually great, but aren’t able to cement themselves as a unit.
There’s no chemistry between the characters because the story is utterly subservient to the presentation of the songs. Music playing under the dialogue drowns out lines, and there are times when the lyrics can’t be heard for the volume. One important exchange between Ally and Yvonne sees the pair wander off to allow their musicians to take centre stage and at this point we’re in pure concert mode.
A couple of scenes are played out with not a scrap of music, and they work wonderfully well, with the actors trusted to convey their characters’ emotions. Alyson Orr is heartbreaking during Oh Jean, trembling silently as she discovers a letter in Rab’s pocket. Keith Macpherson is touching as bedridden Rab, contemplating a future without wanderlust-filled Liz.
For the most part, though, it’s impossible to relax into the play because you’re always aware of the artifice. Naturalism is core to the show, but in directors Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti’s staging the concept crushes the story. Why is Davy suddenly at the back of the stage playing keyboard? Would Ally really take a guitar into a job training course?
The cast of Sunshine on Leith. Pic: Fraser Band
And then there’s that model village; as a backdrop it’s fine, it twinkles merrily. But occasionally the players have to unlock the stilts and move it around the stage, breaking the reality of the piece. Worse, occasionally company members climb ladders to deliver their lines or sing a song behind the titchy houses, like couthy Godzillas. It is bizarre.
If you fancy a night out tapping your feet to such hits as Oh Jean, I’m On My Way, Let’s Get Married and the title number, you won’t be disappointed as they’re all there. If you want to rediscover less well-remembered songs, you’re in luck – Wedding Singer Anna Fordham’s interpretation of Simple Things is gorgeous, for one. Musical director Richard Reeday does the numbers proud – it’s just their prominence that’s the problem.
It’s heartening to see the fine folk of Capital Theatres involved in such a confident show, it’s just a shame this Sunshine on Leith is more concert than theatre. Still, if you’re a Proclaimers fan and want to hear nicely played, sharply harmonised renditions of the hits, this is the Sunshine on Leith for you.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 7 – Saturday 18 June 2022
Evenings Mon – Sat: 7.30pm; Mats Weds, Sat: 2.30pm.
Information and tickets:. Book here.