Sunshine on Leith
Mamma Mia! for Proclaimers fans. Andrew Johnston is blown away
With its shell-shocked squaddies, brawling Hibs supporters, dancing barmen and adulterous Scottish pensioners – all set to a soundtrack of the Proclaimers songs sung by Lord of the Rings star Billy Boyd – Dundee Rep’s Sunshine on Leith might not be at the top of every theatregoer’s must-see list. But there is much more here than meets the eye.
First, the Proclaimers, far from being some sort of one-hit novelty act, straddle the worlds of pop, punk, folk and country like champions. In Scotland, they’re national heroes. Second, Boyd – still best known as sidekick Pippin in Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy – is a fine actor, an even finer singer and, well, a decent dancer. Third, Stephen Greenhorn’s story, though straightforward, is utterly charming.
Sunshine on Leith is a simple tale of love, loss, loyalty and longing. Boyd and Michael Moreland portray Davy and Ally, British Army soldiers returning home to Leith – ‘not Edinburgh’ – from Afghanistan. They settle back into their lives as best they can, working in an office, courting the local girls and dreaming of a brighter future.
The play isn’t afraid to include stereotypes of Scotland – an anniversary party degenerates into fisticuffs; the characters spend a lot of time boozing and eating fry-ups – but it also addresses current concerns. A smart speech about the gentrification of Leith tells how the factories, pubs and workmen’s clubs have been replaced by exclusive apartments and a Malmaison hotel. Sound familiar?
Like Mamma Mia!, the Proclaimers’ catalogue has been retrospectively stitched together into a storyline. At times, it can feel contrived. As soon as Davy’s sister Liz (Jo Freer) announces she is taking a job in Florida, we’re waiting for ‘Letter from America’. But the all-male performance of ‘Let’s Get Married’ is hilarious, while ‘Should Have Been Loved’, sung by wronged wife Jean (Ann Louise Ross), is heartbreaking. ‘(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles’ is a rousing finale, with the cast remaining onstage as the curtain falls, seemingly blown away by the response.
Staging the play outside Scotland for the first time was never going to be easy, but with the Ulster-Scots connection and a passion for all things Caledonian, Belfast is probably the best place to do it. On opening night, the Grand Opera House is comfortably full, with a lot of Scottish voices in the foyer.
But you don’t need to be from Glasgow, Edinburgh or the Outer Hebrides to appreciate Sunshine on Leith. Craig and Charlie Reid’s songs are universal, brimming with emotional and political fire. It’s nice to hear the accent on the stage, and the cast reference this with a foot-stomping rendition of ‘Throw the “R” Away’.
The ever-changing sets – the Afghan battlefield, a soulless call centre, a drunk-infested casualty ward – are contained within the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. If you’re from Scotland, or have lived there, Sunshine on Leith will be a nostalgic treat. If you’ve never been, you’ll want to go, soon.
Sunshine on Leith is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, until October 9.