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Stephen Greenhorn - Sunshine On Leith

The Proclaimers are everywhere just now. There they were at number one just the other week with (I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles, albeit augmented for Comic Relief by Phoenix Nights’ Brian Potter, aka Peter Kay, and Andy Pipkin, Matt Lucas’ equally wheelchair-bound creation from Little Britain. On the back of this, teatime TV channel-hoppers could see songwriting twins Craig and Charlie Reid doing the rounds of mass market chat shows in the way they once toured the pub venue circuit.

This is all a magnificent piece of serendipity for the premiere this week at Dundee Rep of Sunshine On Leith, Stephen Greenhorn’s musical play, which weaves The Proclaimers back catalogue into a narrative involving two young squaddies returning from the Iraq war to their home down by the docks. This is hardly the feel-good stuff of stage musicals, you might think. Consider the socio-political content of most Proclaimers songs, though, and the output of the goggle-eyed siblings once dismissed as one hit wonders following their rendition of Letter To America on Channel Four Friday night pop show, The Tube, 20 years ago, is perfect.

.Here is an act, after all, who sang in the sort of Scots accents previously the domain of The White Heather Club and other ‘regional’ fare. If this in itself was a statement, The Proclaimers narrative-laden songs were peppered with local references that gave their already blue-collar honesty a romantic sense of its own geography on a par with Route 66 or any other slice of legend-tinged Americana. Now a bona fide national institution, you could feasibly accompany a Proclaimers song with all manner of half-baked dramatic tosh and audiences would go home satisfied. Greenhorn, however, is taking Sunshine On Leith very seriously indeed.

“Listen to a Proclaimers song,” says Greenhorn of his new favourite band, “and there’s politics there, there’s heartbreak, grief, stuff about Scotland struggling with itself, stuff about alcoholism, about men trying to live up to the idea of being a man. I’d been wrestling with myself about all these things in other writing, and I didn’t want to suddenly take these rich, thematically complex songs and put them in a story that was boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and they get happily married. They’re more bittersweet than that.”

Nevertheless, Sunshine On Leith is based around three cross-generational couples living in a part of town where old loyalties of friends and families are gradually giving way to something bigger.

Greenhorn has always had a keen eye for the intelligently populist, ever since his road movie for the stage, Passing Places, zoomed our of The Traverse Theatre’s studio space to become a regular rep fixture, with a brand new production at Pitlochry Festival Theatre pending. Let’s not forget too that Greenhorn is the creator of TV soap opera, River City. Though he is no longer involved with the programme, he originally and quite deliberately set in Leith. His decision not only moved its action away from what some saw as a pro-west coast bias by TV makers, but also allowed for the neighbourhood’s long-term working class residents to nestle up to nouveau riche incomers with a credibility anyone who’s hung out in Leith will recognise.

River City, of course, was shifted to an imaginary district of Glasgow the moment Greenhorn’s back was turned. With such baggage in tow, it’s tempting to think that Sunshine On Leith is Greenhorn, who has just joined the writing team of Doctor Who, to some extent reclaiming his vision in an even poppier way than prime time TV would allow for.

From revivals of Cabaret and Flora The Red Menace to premiering the post-modern vaudeville of Forbes Masson’s Mince! and Pants!, Dundee Rep could be said to have pioneered the now fashionable home-grown musical outwith the commercial touring circuit.

Sunshine On Leith chimes too with the current vogue for ‘jukebox musicals,’ the post rock n’ roll biopic phenomenon that began with Mamma Mia, inspired by Abba songs, and We Will Rock You, taken from Queen. In both of these, slender narratives are woven out of a previously un-connected series of greatest hits. Where Mamma Mia’s foreigners abroad quest for love by a girl in search of her biological father is cheesy and sentimental Sunday night sedative TV fare, We Will Rock You, penned by Ben Elton, is fantastical, naff and really rather stupid. If ongoing box office sales matter, however, artistic credibility isn’t something producers of either show need lose sleep over.

A rash of similarly styled shows have followed in Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You’s wake with varying degrees of success. Never Forget, set to the music of Take That, is due any minute, though what became of the proposed Smiths one, featuring songs already plundered from the collected works of A Taste Of Honey author Shelagh Delaney, is anybody’s guess.

Greenhorn did, however, see Our House, inspired by Madness’s London-centric collection of social-realist vignettes which, superficially, at least, mined similar terrain to The Proclaimers.

“The one thing that troubled us about other shows done like this is that they all had this anthemic thing going on,” Greenhorn observes. “In some cases that’s unavoidable, because the people coming to see the show will know the songs because that’s why they’re there. We’re not trying to disguise the fact that a song is about to happen, but we do them in a way that’s maybe not expected. Some are slowed down, so even though the songs weren’t written specifically for this show, each one carries the character and the narrative into the next scene. The voices and characters who inhabit the songs are actually quite similar, and the range of them and depth of them were exactly what we needed in terms of putting together a theatrical narrative show rather than just a showcase for rock songs.”

Greenhorn is attempting, then, to inject some life into two forms that can sometimes look tired to the point of being clapped-out. Where musicals themselves were long ago co-opted into the hi-tech spectacles of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, rock ‘n roll’s original libidinous rebellion was similarly tamed to become just one more branch of showbiz.

“It’s quite difficult to marry that rebellion to something that you would normally associate with your mum and dad going for a Saturday night at the Playhouse, but The Proclaimers songs are this peculiar and particular hybrid. You’ve got the subject matter of Country that allows you tragedy, heartbreak, darkness and sentimentality, married to the energy of rock and the sensibility of fantastic pop tunes.”

As Greenhorn readily admits, though, “I’m no Stephen Sondheim. I‘m not setting out to redefine the musical genre. I’m actually interesting in operating within that genre, but I think you can take that genre and that form and say something serious with it. You can do it like I did with Passing Places, which has a lot of content, but in terms of style it’s just one bad joke after another. So you mustn’t confuse the demands of the genre or the lightness and broadness of the style with what you hopefully get by the end of it, which is an exploration through al this myriad of themes. I’m not expecting people to rush out and want to write a thesis about it, but I’d be disappointed if they hadn’t been made to think about the decisions they’ve made in their lives, and think that maybe it was about them.”

Sunshine On Leith, Dundee Rep, April 18-May 12, then tours

The Herald, April 17th 2007

ends

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