The scene is a wedding. Tying the knot is theater director Ben Occhipinti. His friend and colleague Elizabeth Newman has volunteered to lead the congregation in song. She has chosen one of her favorites from her: I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by the Proclaimers. She gets the guests to sing the de-de-de-da lines as a call-and-response at the reception to see who can be the most joyful. She calls it a “joy-off.”
Not long after, Newman finds herself in a BBC Radio 4 studio where her fellow guests on Front Row are none other than Craig and Charlie Reid. She is there to talk about her outdoor staging of Gulliver’s Travels (co-directed with Occhipinti). They are promoting the new Proclaimers album, Angry Cyclist.
Waiting for the show to start, she tries to make small talk. “Having coffee beforehand is always a bit awkward,” she laughs with embarrassment. “I got way too close to them and went, ‘I love your music so much and I’ve just done a joy-off at my friend’s wedding…’ They were looking at me like I was insane.”
This was 2018 and Newman was readying herself to leave Bolton to become artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre. If you’re coming to Scotland, said the Reid twins, you should think about staging Sunshine On Leith. “I’ve been trying to get the rights for ages,” she gushed, thrilled to know they loved Stephen Greenhorn’s musical as much as she did.
“The Proclaimers inspire a reaction that’s not, ‘Oh, I quite like the music,'” says Greenhorn, sitting next to Newman in a post-rehearsal break in Pitlochry. “They connect in a way that is so visceral that it becomes a personal relationship.”
First seen at Dundee Rep in 2007, Greenhorn’s show is no mere musical jukebox. Rather, it draws on the Proclaimers catalog to tell a story that is every bit as political and emotional as the music itself. So committed was the playwright to dramatic integrity that it was touch and go whether he’d even include his biggest hit.
“We were very clear it wasn’t a greatest hits assembly,” he says. “We needed to find a set of songs we could use to tell a story. I said to Kenny, their manager, ‘I don’t know whether their biggest songs are going to be in the show, because if they don’t fit the story, they won’t be there.'”
He says I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) was a case in point: “If you put it in the middle, the show finishes because the audience are taken out of the storytelling. That song is an event in itself. It wasn’t t until late in the process in Dundee that we found a way to make it work. The answer was to hold back on the chorus and use the verses to wrap up the stories of the couples in the show and then deliver the chorus. Until half way through the rehearsals, we were looking at doing a Proclaimers musical without 500 Miles.”
His dedication paid off. The musical has been re-staged as far afield as India, is a favorite on the amdram scene and, in 2013, was turned into a movie with Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks. Now, Newman and Occhipinti are staging the show not only to re-open a refurbished Pitlochry Festival Theater and herald the start of the summer season, but also to close the Edinburgh King’s before its £25m redevelopment.
“Stephen is very clever because he has written a fantastic play where people need to express how they feel through song,” says Newman. “Stephen and the Proclaimers have merged to become a whole thing. The story he tells is about love and relationships, growing up, the disappointments of life, the idea of family. All of those themes and flaws that Stephen is exploring are within the music of the Proclaimers.”
How, then, is Sunshine On Leith shaping up 15 years after its premiere and two years after the pandemic struck? “The audience inevitably bring their world to the show,” says Greenhorn. “At various times, there has been a particular audience response to the two guys coming back from a war. At other times, it’s been about the NHS or not wanting to wait for the potential of independence. Now, on the back of Covid, what’s striking to me are the notes of endurance, survival and holding it together in times of stress.”
Newman adds: “What it has in common with all the other productions is love. At the center of it is our deep commitment as human beings to love each other – whether that be romantic love or family love.”
With a 14-strong cast, including Keith Jack, Connor Going, Rhiane Drummond, Alyson Orr and Keith Macpherson, the show kicks off a season that takes place not only in the main auditorium, but also the outdoor amphitheater – a pandemic innovation – and the all-new studio. The line-up ranges from a 40th-anniversary revival of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off to a new adaptation by David Greig of Under Another Sky, a study of Romans in Britain by Charlotte Higgins.
“We are keen to welcome as many people as possible and you do that by offering a diverse diet for people to eat,” says Newman. “There is a good balance between things that make you laugh, make you cry, make you question, make you feel unnerved and make you feel delighted.”
Sunshine On Leith is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, from 20 May to 2 June and 24 June to 1 October, and at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, from 7–18 June.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.