If the Proclaimers are the unlikeliest of pop stars — identical twins in unflattering geek glasses singing in broad Scottish accents — then “Sunshine on Leith” is the unlikeliest of tuners. Eschewing the relentless cheerfulness of jukebox musicals like “We Will Rock You” and “Mamma Mia!,” it opens with soldiers singing about death (“Sky Takes the Soul”), offers a completely new set of arrangements with little opportunity for the audience to sing along and presents the title track as a downbeat lament over a hospital bed. Like the band, the show refuses to play by the commercial rules, and, like the band, it comes out on top.
The approach taken by writer Stephen Greenhorn is to devise a story that reflects the concerns of brothers Craig and Charlie Reid over their 20-year career as the Proclaimers. As well as great romantic love songs such as “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and “I’m on My Way” (their biggest international hits), this means picking up on the dependency culture rant of “Everybody’s a Victim,” the small-nation outrage of “Throw the ‘R’ Away” and the moving description of cultural exodus in “Letter From America.”
Like the songs about heavy drinking, walking away from a dying man and the guilty pleasures of adultery, these tunes offer unusual subjects for the pop charts and fertile ground for the playwright.
Greenhorn spins a tale about two friends, Davy (Keith Fleming) and Ally (Kevin Lennon), returning from frontline action in Afghanistan and forging new lives back home in Leith, a working-class and increasingly gentrified district of Edinburgh. With their girlfriends, Yvonne (Emily Winter) and Liz (Gail Watson), they try to map out a future for themselves while coping with the pressures of family, illness, secrets and differing life expectations.
The narrative could be more dynamic were it concerned with some great quest rather than the soap opera-style details of growing old, leaving home, one-night stands and falling in and out of love. But Greenhorn, a very funny writer, gets full value out of this territory, allowing himself room to comment on the post-industrial world of call centers and the limitations of the small-town mindset at the same time as creating convincing and poignant settings for the Proclaimers’ songs.
Anyone familiar with the Proclaimers’ recordings can see the writer laying the groundwork for many of the numbers, but, for the most part, the story is credible and, remarkably, consistent with every word of songs not written for this context.
Even in the absence of the Proclaimers’ distinctive harmonies, the songs hold their own. Musical director Hilary Brooks, leading a nine-piece band of wind, guitar and keyboards, fashions stirring arrangements that draw on the country and gospel leanings of the originals while filling them out with the sound of as many as 15 actors.
Helmer James Brining puts together a deceptively slick show, slipping effortlessly through the multiple scene changes on Neil Warmington’s open set, while filling the stage with warm, witty and human performances. The mood swings from elation to despair, anger to optimism, culminating in heartbreaking renditions of “Sunshine on Leith” and “Letter From America” before a stomping finale of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” which neatly, if a little rapidly, ties up all three main strands of the story.
Some of Greenhorn’s gags are so specific to Edinburgh that even an audience in Dundee (60 miles away) can’t be expected to get them, but the emotional power of his material is universal, and the only question is why it’s taken so long for someone to see the Proclaimers’ theatrical potential.