Touring – reviewed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
As unlikely a Proclaimers musical may seem, this gorgeous production of Sunshine on Leith at West Yorkshire Playhouse is probably the best thing I’ve seen this year.
Is a jukebox musical still a jukebox musical when you don’t know most of the songs? You feel that most people would be hard-pressed to name more than two songs by The Proclaimers and so it is part of the genius of Stephen Greenhorn (writer) and James Brining (commissioner and director) that they have managed to fashion something so perfect, that somehow still feels so familiar, from the back catalogue of the Edinburgh brothers.
Sunshine on Leith was first seen at the Dundee Rep in 2007 and though it has toured Scotland a few times since it has rarely been seen south of the border. So who else to revive it but Brining himself for West Yorkshire Playhouse. And what a straight-up, fantastic success it is. London has seen its fair share of big musicals open this month but none have made me cry, never mind feel so much as this.
It may be jukebox in form but Greenhorn’s book is original, telling the story of two young soldiers returning to their Scottish hometown after a traumatic tour of Afghanistan, struggling to readjust to civilian life. And it uses the music sparingly, allowing characters to really blossom, relationships to flourish, our sympathies to be fully engaged as the lives of this community unfold before us. You get so involved that when someone receives some post from a university in Florida, it honestly comes as something of a surprise that they start to sing ‘Letter From America’.
And it is that sense of community that is so crucial to the show’s success. Actor-musicians are sprinkled throughout the company, the band are onstage throughout, and Colin Richmond’s set locates us in the camaraderie of the local pub. And there, it feels impossible not to be entirely swept up in the warmth and humility of these ordinary souls, this everyday music, elevated here to something extraordinary.
David Shrubsole’s arrangement of ‘Letter From America’ makes it feel like one of the finest folk songs ever written, the unexpected harmonies in the middle of ‘500 Miles’ send shivers down your spine as does the haunting rhythm of the opening ‘Sky Takes The Soul’, and the sing-along feel of ‘Over and Done With’ is just delightful. And the pleasures aren’t just musical (credit to MD Toby Higgins), Emily-Jane Boyle’s choreography has the easy grace of Frantic Assembly’s finest work.
Given the power of the ensemble, it almost feels churlish to pick out individuals but leading players Steven Miller and Paul-James Corrigan are both excellent as the young men finding their place in a changed world, Jocasta Almgill and Neshla Caplan impress as the women in their lives, and Hilary Maclean’s quietly emotional Jean is just perfect as she cracks even the flintiest of Celtic resolves with a beautiful rendition of the title track.
Humourous and heartfelt, Sunshine on Leith is utterly joyous. It is everything I want from my musical theatre and I couldn’t recommend it more.