Friday 27th April 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Sunshine on Leith is the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s latest musical venture and if the unanimous standing ovations and deafening cheers at the curtain call are anything to go by, it’s a hit for amorous audiences. As a show constructed around hits of The Proclaimers like I’m On My Way, I’m Gonna Be and of course the title song Sunshine on Leith, this is a musical which has an audience on side before the first line is uttered, but a head-start isn’t actually needed; this production proves its own worth with excellent design across the board and a charismatic, bouncy cast. Stephen Greenhorn’s writing is both light and sentimental with some nicely planted ‘current’ references to Kim and Kanye as well as Brexit, raising knowing laughs from an audience who are nothing if not ready to enjoy every moment. The story is a celebration of romantic youth, Scottish charm and folly but it also delves into more dramatic content along the way.Friends Davy and Ally, played by Steven Miller and Paul-James Corrigan, have just returned home after finishing a troubling stint in the army. Ally is dating Davy’s sister Liz (Neshla Caplan) and their story is a rocky one, filled with uncertainty, disillusionment and crossed wires. Caplan and Corrigan actually deliver the best dramatic performances of the piece, handling the journey of their characters with both fire and ice as well as delivering vocally. Davy meanwhile falls for Yvonne (Jocasta Almgill) and we see their whirlwind romance weather storms for better and worse. Almgill and Miller both showcase beautiful vocals, with Miller throwing out some excellent riffs in a nice contrast with Almgill’s strong, pure notes. As with any musical centred on young relationships, there’s a significant amount of pregnant pauses, angst and sentimentality, but both love stories are played well and as is quite rare for a big musical these days, the performances have some lovely depth even while being full of youth and fun. The third narrative thread concerns Ally and Liz’s parents Jean (Hillary Maclean) and Rab (Phil McKeewho); after thirty years of marriage, they are facing a new crisis involving the unexpected arrival of a young woman named Elidh, played with a gentle vulnerability by Nikki Patel who brings historical rain clouds into the folds of a happy family.Having three narratives to cover is a big challenge for any team, but this production handles that challenge well, giving each story just enough time to show credible development while also demonstrating flair through imaginative intertwining of interactions and cross cutting. The production also features a strong ensemble wound as tightly as a spring; they are vital for the larger than life sounds and sights for the most exhuberant numbers as well as providing constant backing vocals and muted performances in the margins. Tyler Collins is a charismatic addition as a recurring guitarist making the most of every appearance- stylishly witty direction of his movements make him an easy favourite. Lorna McMillan stands out for her beaming energy, Joel Burman for vocals which stand out from the crowd, Lorraine Graham for her portrayal of the fiercely protective friend of Jean and Kara Swinney for both her beautiful vocals and her total dedication to every minor role taken. It takes a village to produce this kind of precision and flair – and what a village this production has.As with director James Brining’s recent production of The Fall of the Master Builder, this is an impressively polished and visually enervating show; I’m so pleased to see his keen eye excel in a musical forum as much as it did in a dramatic environment. Colin Richmond’s set is wonderful, somehow both minimal in its multi-functionality as well as grand in its scale as set pieces cover the whole length of the Quarry’s substantial stage space. External sets offer a brick wall with pipes, posters, a mains box and a lit advertisement box; the scene shifts to a kitchen and the mains box doubles as a fridge while the advertisement box opens up to provide a pantry. Piano doubles a reception; signs are flown in to swiftly move us between locations while an electronic screen descends to provide a transitioning doctor’s surgery TV screen – all modern touches simple in design but charming in their ability to capture pedestrian settings without over-embellishment or distracting complexity. Often minor action is subtly foregrounded to allow for set shifts which go impressively unnoticed – all very slick indeed. Lighting design from Tim Mitchell contributes to this over-arching stylish design with lighting which throws boxes representing rooms or lifts onto the stage; so simple, but so impactful.The music of Sunshine on Leith is predictably brilliant. Musical sequences are nicely planted within the narrative and Greenhorn’s script does not allow for clunky shifts between dialogue and musical moment (even if it does get a little slow and laboured in places). The movement of Sunshine on Leith is definitely one of its most winning features thanks to Emily-Jane Boyle’s choreography which is superbly sharp and energised. The sequence for Let’s Get Married is a delight – playful, rousing and full of every kind of character while Should Have Been Loved combines defiance with an air of Grease’s Pink Ladies in the air. There are some brilliant examples of well integrated stylish choreography to glorify monotonous actions like mopping a floor or wiping down a bar. On the flip side though, Hate My Love for you hits some bum notes in its angry approach to its delivery. Pitchy moments are admittedly there but very few and the music of this production is fantastically diverse, offering beautiful ballads and lively ensemble numbers. It is the gorgeous harmonies utilised throughout (the crowning glory of any Proclaimers song for me) which are the most powerful and beautiful sounds to be heard in both lively songs and ballads.This is a fun-loving production which delivers drama well and music brilliantly. It has a winning youthful energy and the cast deliver the stories with great enthusiasm which audiences clearly find infectious. Most impressive for me is the stylishness of direction, musical arrangements and choreography; this isn’t a clunky jukebox style musical which shoe-horns hits into unnatural contortions to induce eye rolls and tuts from cynics like me. Nor is it an over-confident or over-sized production which values style over substance. It approaches the musical forum with intelligent simplicity which doesn’t short change on scale but does reject the clunky, blindly broad brush strokes evident in plenty of other musical productions I’ve seen. It’s more light and fun than dramatically gripping or moving and it’s not without minor flaws, but there’s so much to impress with this production that you should get booking before it sells out. Is it better than the film? Definitely.
Sunshine on Leith plays at West Yorkshire Playhouse until May 19th 2018 before touring and you can get your tickets here.
King’s Theatre – Edinburgh w/c 21 May 2018
His Majesty’s Theatre – Aberdeen w/c 28 May 2018
Belgrade Theatre – Coventry w/c 4 June 2018
Dundee Repertory Theatre w/c 11 June 2018
King’s Theatre – Glasgow w/c 18 June 2018
Eden Court – Inverness w/c 25 June 2018