Touring – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Raw in delivery and driven by big emotions, Sunshine on Leith returns to Edinburgh in a tough new version produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse which retains the heart of the original 2007 musical while bringing it right up to date.
Stephen Greenhorn adds a sense of contemporary Edinburgh to his own original script without going overboard about it; while James Brining, who commissioned the original for Dundee Rep, returns to the piece with a strong sense that it is the performances as much as the songs which carry the show.
Often described as a jukebox musical using the songs of The Proclaimers, this is, however, superior fare. Thanks to the strength of the original songs and the skills of River City creator Greenhorn, the music serves and enhances the plot about squaddies Davy and Ally who leave the army and return home to Leith.
Despite the occasional name being obviously placed – Davy’s mum being called Jean allows her husband to serenade her with ‘Oh Jean’ at their 30th wedding anniversary – only once does it feel as if the plot is contrived to serve the use of the music.
Steven Miller as Davy and Paul-James Corrigan as Ally are both excellent value. There’s a real feeling that they are moving on from the horrors of front-line action and getting back into life at home.
They are clearly on their way from misery to happiness as they amble down Leith Walk, commenting on recent changers. There’s likely-lads comedy when they apply for a job in a call centre and get coached on how to reply – cue Throw the R Away – and enjoy such simple things as catching a tedious Hibs away game in the pub.
For Ally the real lure, however, is his long term girlfriend, Davy’s sister Liz who works as a nurse at the infirmary. Davy’s life seems to be slipping into old ways at home arguing with his dad, Rab, but when Liz and Ally set him up for a double date with her best pal Yvonne he is quickly bouncing around with a bit more desire.
Against their existing and burgeoning relationships, Jean and Rab’s is entering the tricky waters of 30 years. Hilary Maclean as Jean and Phil McKee as Rab cut straight into that sense of a well-worn, comfortable relationship which hasn’t been questioned too much of late. Setting it up for real crisis with the arrival of Nikki Patel as Eiligdh.
It’s the power of these three relationships which drives the whole thing and delivers its big dollops of joy and sorrow. And within those, there’s a strong sense uncertainty for the men, lost masculinity in some ways, while the real drive is delivered by the women, still struggling to make themselves treated as the equals.
This is echoed in the performances. While Ally and Davy have not been cast for their singing voices, Neshla Caplan as Liz and Jocasta Almgill as Yvonne have got plenty of musical chops and deliver their big numbers with more than a little style and application to both the music and the words.
Caplan, in particular, has plenty of scope. Her What Do You Do gets right into the nub of the song’s politics about fighting for what you see as the right thing only to discover that the forces of darkness have won in a way that feels most relevant post Trump. And her lead on Letter from America is a real joy.
Almgill delivers on all levels too – English Yvonne’s interactions with Davy as they tentatively step towards some kind of long-term relationship helps round out the production’s look at place and identity.
There’s a real ensemble feel to the whole production with the seven piece band on stage. Most of the supporting actors – there’s a cast of 18 – playing instruments of some sort. Tyler Collins, recently seen in the The Broons, is a great barman, conducting scenes set in the pub, and adding hilarious narrative comment to Over and Done With, when the four go on their double date.
All this on stage crowding of the ensemble around the main performers makes the whole production more intimate, while adding vocal depth to the songs. It brings you closer in to the action, even when it dissolves into very Black Watch style choreography, by Emily-Jane Boyle.
Staging wise, Brining has done a great job of allowing the piece to flow but unfortunately Colin Richmond’s cleverly revolving pieces of stage scenery don’t always work as they are intended and too often provide distractions of the kind that should not be there.
Fans of the original musical will notice the odd change – that date isn’t in the Canny Man, for example. While Jean is no longer a cleaner on the Britannia, but has moved down to Holyrood. There’s even a sound cue of a tram passing at one point.
But it is still a play about the joys and tribulations of real life. The romance isn’t all cooing and billing, but laced with real considerations of how you make things work when it isn’t all perfect. A problem it acknowledges on a wider scale too, whether it is the complexities of modern life or how how Scotland and being Scottish sits in Great Britain today.
Running time two hours and 45 minutes (including one interval).
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, Grindlay Street, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 22 – Saturday 26 May 2018
Evenings: 7.30pm, Matinees Weds, Sat: 2.30pm.
Sunshine on Leith on tour 2018:
Tue 22 – Sat 26 May
0131 529 6000
Tue 29 May – Sat 2 June
His Majesty’s Theatre
Tue 5 – Sat 9 June
024 7655 3055
Mon 11 – Sat 16 June
Mon 18 – Sat 23 June
0844 871 7648
Tue 26 – Sat 26 June
Eden Court Theatre
01463 234 234