Willy Russell

Sunshine on Leith

08/06/22

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

In Edinburgh, you’re never more than six feet away from a Proclaimer. Or, at least, from someone proclaiming their love for the Proclaimers. The affection is well-deserved. Craig and Charlie Reid are responsible for a multitude of absolute bangers: deceptively simple tunes, combining heart and anger, warmth and sadness. It was inevitable someone would say, ‘Hey, we could make a musical from these.’ (Cue: Stephen Greenhorn.) And equally inevitable that the resulting project would be a hit, a regular on stage since its 2007 debut, with a successful film adaptation to boot.

So there are no surprises here. We’re familiar with the show; of course we are. Nonetheless, there’s a palpable thrill in the air, because we know we’re in for a treat. This two-venue production – co-directed by Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti – is laden with symbolism: the first show since Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s revamp, and the last before Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre closes for its own refurbishment. It’s the perfect choice for both, a celebration of Scottish talent and a love song to the people of Caledonia.

There’s a low-key, homespun ambience, which works well, creating a sense of familiarity between the performers and the audience. There are no flamboyant costumes here, no fancy pyrotechnics. Instead, like the Proclaimers’ songs, it’s quietly clever – no showing off. The band doubles as the ensemble, and they appear to be a happy team, grinning at one another and at us, and vibing unselfconsciously. There are no barriers, which cements that feeling of intimacy, enabling us to empathise with the characters. This is no mean feat in a large, traditional theatre like the King’s, with its proscenium arch and imposing loges, all designed to accentuate the separation of stage and auditorium. It’s really very impressive.

The story is a Willy Russell-esque account of working-class life, told with affection and a strong sense of place. Ally and Davy (Keith Jack and Connor Going) are back in Leith, having been honourably discharged from the army, just in time for Davy’s parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary party. Ally’s been going out with Davy’s sister for years, and he’s hoping now’s the time to settle down, but Liz (Blythe Jandoo) isn’t quite ready for that. She’s been stuck at home while he’s been away, and she’s restless, keen to stretch her wings. Her nursing pal, Yvonne (Rhiane Drummond), meanwhile, has fallen for Davy – and what is Davy’s dad, Rab (Keith Macpherson), hiding from his wife, Jean (Alyson Orr)? It’s a simple tale, but surprisingly affecting, and I find myself tearing up on more than one occasion. No spoilers, but the line “Because they wanted me” just hits me every time, and Orr’s rendition of the titular song is genuinely heartbreaking.

Adrian Rees’ set looks great. A miniaturised Edinburgh skyline is mounted on stilts, while the action occurs below – a neat representation of Leith and Edinburgh, the city looming over the town. There are ladders leading up to Blackford Hill; from here, we join the characters looking down on their home turf, trying to get a handle on their place in the world. The set comes apart, so that sections can be moved to create walls, but this is a distraction for me. It seems unnecessary and, although the transitions are thoughtfully choreographed, there’s too much clutter and stage traffic for very little gain.

In the end, this is all about the music (directed by Richard Reeday), and it’s a fabulous combination of the raucous and the refined. There are some issues with the sound – mics occasionally cutting out, and some imbalance between the vocals and the instrumentals – but none of it really detracts from the serious talent on display.

Sunshine on Leith has a relatively long run, so you’ve got until the 18th June to catch it here in Edinburgh – and to say “bye the nou” to the Old Lady of Leven Street.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Shirley Valentine

30/05/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Willy Russell’s 1998 play has endured largely because of the strength of the writing and the fact that so many women identify with the character of Shirley Valentine. Essentially a comic monologue, the play was opened out for film in 1989 and this is how most people remember it – but the play has more power, simply because we view everything through the eyes of jaded working-class mother, Shirley, a woman so marginalised by her husband, Joe, that she has resorted to having conversations with her kitchen wall.

Jodie Prenger – who first came to the public’s attention when she won the BBC’s I’ll Do Anything, and went on to land the coveted role of Nancy in a revival of Oliver! at the Year Royal, Drury Lane – has a field day with the role of Shirley. She’s funny, assured and has an evident gift for physical theatre: many of the evening’s biggest laughs come from the way she deports herself as she talks. We spend the first two acts in Shirley’s kitchen as she initially cooks her husband’s dinner (an unscheduled plate of chips and egg) and then prepares to go on holiday to Greece with her friend. The final act takes place on the beach itself, where we learn that Shirley has had a brief fling wth a local barman and that she has now graduated to having conversations with a rock. What’s more, having reinvented herself in the sunshine, she has no intention of returning to her former life…

This is a charming slice of theatre, hugely appreciated by an enthusiastic audience and, while it must now be considered a period piece, it nonetheless offers a highly entertaining night at the theatre.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney