DramaMusicalNorth East & YorkshireReview

Sunshine on Leith – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: Stephen Greenhorn

Music: The Proclaimers

Music Supervisor: David Shrubsole

Director: James Brining

Choreographer: Emily-Jane Boyle

Reviewer: Janet Jepson

West Yorkshire Playhouse has definitely chosen a winner with Sunshine on Leith, the modern musical based on the songs of the Scottish band The Proclaimers. Although the work was only premiered in 2007, it already has a strong fanbase, probably due to the established popularity of the music. Followed by a film release of the same name in 2013, its appeal was further cemented.

Hailing from Leith and born in 1962, Twins Craig and Charlie Reid, were influenced early on in their career by rock ‘n roll and country music. After a short spell dabbling in punk bands, they established their unique style as The Proclaimers in the 80s. Writer Stephen Greenhorn became an ardent fan, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he started work on a musical in which he planned to explore the issues that The Proclaimers wrote about so passionately in their songs.

Davy and Ally (played wonderfully as lads about town by Steven Miller and Paul-James Corrigan) are returning to their native Leith after a short spell in the army, wondering what on earth life will hold for them now. They easily slip back into the familiar life with their assorted mates in the local pub and on the terraces of their football team, but things aren’t as comfortable in the call centre where they are destined to find work and encouraged to prostitute a perfect Scottish accent to sell insurance. Neither is life at home a bed of roses. Davy can’t quite cope with the resentment his dad Rab (aka Phil McKee) seems to hold against him for joining up, and the smothering love that his mother Jean (played by Hilary Maclean) displays towards him. Ally is forced to live in his sister’s spare room, where he feels distinctly out of place. Love unfolds for them both in the form of Liz, Davy’s sister (Neshla Caplan) and Yvonne, her friend (Jocaster Almgill), both disgruntled nurses working in an NHS hospital that is crumbling in every sense of the word. 

Of course, all doesn’t go smoothly. Jean and Rab’s 30th wedding anniversary celebration seems to unleash a downward spiral of events that sees all the relationships tested to breaking point. A fling in the distant past with consequences; a degree of wanderlust and dissatisfaction; and bucketfuls of insecurity all conspire to upset the course of life lived in lovely Leith. Throughout it all there’s a steady stream of Proclaimers songs, echoing perfectly the emotions crowding in. Such titles as Over and Done With, Make My Heart Fly, Let’s Get Married, Hate My Love For You, Letter from America and many more have incredibly passionate, honest, angry and witty lyrics. All comes good in the end, but there has been a life-threatening illness, separation, compromise and, despite everything, some laughter along the way. Every one of the lead characters is absolutely perfect in his or her role, and the supporting ensemble members feel like everyone’s best mates.

The set is very detailed, very substantial, and obviously not made for moving on to a different theatre every night. The pub really looks and feels like your local – it even seems to smell right?… but maybe that’s just because it’s so visually effective. The live band has a little cubby hole of its own, although a lot of the musicians wander and dance (and ride in supermarket trollies) freely around the stage. A piano becomes a reception desk, complete with the pianist playing along. The costumes are all casual, lots of denim and sneakers, with posh frocks and kilts for the anniversary party. Maybe the best element of the show is the wonderful Scottish accent inbred or perfected in every speaking member of the cast. It really is soothing and reassuring – the hapless work trainer must be right to say that it sells insurance in call centres.

Go soak up the Sunshine in Leith, it dispels all the winter gloom we’ve endured. The high point, if there can be a high point in such a brilliant show, comes at the end with the classic anthem that has become famous everywhere, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). Everyone needs to be up on their feet, singing, clapping and stamping along, Peter Kay on his treadmill not essential… Yes, life can be this good, whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you dream: the music makes it all possible. Guaranteed you’ll leave as a Proclaimers fan…

Runs until Saturday 19 May 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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