The scene is a wedding. The director is director Ben Occhipinti. Her friend and colleague Elizabeth Newman volunteered to lead the congregation in song. She chose one of her favorites: I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by the Proclaimers. She asks 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 cheerful. She calls it a “joy-off”.
Soon after, Newman finds himself in a BBC Radio 4 studio where his fellow Front Row guests are none other than Craig and Charlie Reid. She’s here to talk about her outdoor staging of Gulliver’s Travels (co-directed with Occhipinti). They’re promoting Proclaimers’ new album, Angry Cyclist.
While waiting for the show to start, she tries to chat. “Having a coffee before is always a bit awkward,” she laughs embarrassed. “I got too close to them and said, ‘I love your music so much and I just threw a party at my friend’s wedding…’ They were looking at me like I was crazy.”
It was 2018 and Newman was preparing to leave Bolton to become artistic director of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. If you’re coming to Scotland, the Reid twins said, you should consider directing Sunshine On Leith. “I’ve been trying to get the rights for ages,” she said, delighted to know they loved Stephen Greenhorn’s musical as much as she did.
“The Proclaimers inspire a reaction that’s not, ‘Oh, I like the music,'” says Greenhorn, seated next to Newman during a break from rehearsal in Pitlochry. “They connect in such a visceral way that it becomes a personal relationship.”
First seen at Dundee Rep in 2007, Greenhorn’s show is not just a musical jukebox. Rather, it draws on the Proclaimers catalog to tell a story that’s just as political and emotional as the music itself. The playwright was so committed to dramatic integrity that it was hard to know if he would even include their biggest hit.
“We were very clear that this was not a greatest hits meeting,” he says. “We had to come up with a set of songs that we could use to tell a story. I said to Kenny, their manager, ‘I don’t know if their biggest songs will be on the show, because if they don’t fit the history, they won’t be there.”
He says I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) is an example of this: “If you put it in the middle, the show ends because the audience walked out of the narration. This song is an event in itself. It was ‘ It wasn’t until late in the process in Dundee that we found a way to make it work. The answer was to hold back the chorus and use the verses to wrap up the stories of the couples in the show and then deliver the chorus. Until halfway through rehearsals, we were considering doing a Proclaimers musical without 500 Miles.”
His dedication paid off. The musical has been reenacted as far away as India, is a favorite of the amdram stage, and in 2013 was made into a movie starring Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks. Now Newman and Occhipinti are putting on the show not only to reopen a refurbished Pitlochry Festival Theater and herald the start of the summer season, but also to close the Edinburgh King’s ahead of its £25million redevelopment.
“Stephen is very smart because he’s written a fantastic piece where people need to express how they feel through song,” says Newman. “Stephen and the Proclaimers have merged into one. The story he tells is about love and relationships, growing up, life’s disappointments, the idea of family. All those themes and flaws that Stephen explores are found in the music of the Proclaimers.”
How, then, does Sunshine On Leith stand 15 years after its premiere and two years after the pandemic hit? “Audiences inevitably bring their world to the show,” says Greenhorn. “On a number of occasions there was a particular response from the public to the two guys coming back from a war. At other times it was about the NHS or not wanting to wait for the potential of independence. Now , off the back of Covid, what strikes me are the ratings of endurance, survivability and staying power 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’s love. ‘romantic love or familial love.’
With a cast of 14, 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 in the outdoor amphitheater – a pandemic innovation – and the brand new studio. The lineup 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 the Romans in Britain by Charlotte Higgins.
“We’re keen to accommodate as many people as possible, and you do that by providing people with a diverse diet,” says Newman. “There’s a good balance between things that make you laugh, make you cry, make you doubt, upset you, and make you feel elated.”
Sunshine On Leith is at the Pitlochry Festival Theater from 20 May to 2 June and 24 June to 1 October, and at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh from 7 to 18 June.