(Note – I wrote this a week ago, and then promptly forgot to post it. Oops.)
Praise be, this time they’re not just wearing underwear. It’s very easy to forget that the massively successful revival of Kander and Ebb‘s Chicago, which closed in the West End last year after a roughly 15-year run and is still going strong on Broadway, began life as a streamlined concert presentation. The show – only a moderate success in its original Bob Fosse staging in 1975 – has become familiar almost to the point of ubiquity, even discounting the 2002 film (which messes about with the material in ways that mostly do it no favours at all), but it’s become familiar in a staging that employs almost no conventional scenery, and in which nearly everyone has only a single (black, skimpy) costume. Seeing the show, then, in a staging where there’s an actual colour palette on view (rather than fifty shades of black) is a welcome surprise.
And this, thank God, is a really good production. With the closing of the long-running revival in the West End, the rights to the show have once again become available to regional theatres; more than one has it scheduled for the upcoming season, but the Oldham Coliseum is, I think, the first to get a production up and running. It’s not the first time they’ve done it; they staged the show in the late 80s in a production that starred Caroline O’Connor, and while I did see it, I can’t honestly say I remember a great deal about it. I imagine their earlier staging did not use actor-musicians; this one does (or rather, three full-time musicians plus the cast), and I admit my heart sank when I realised the actors would be doubling as most of the band because all too often the result is simply that the score gets short-changed. This cast, however, pull it off triumphantly. The music sounds good all the way through, the playing is impeccably tight, there are no audible bum notes, and under Kevin Shaw’s assured direction the cast find all kinds of witty ways to incorporate the instruments into scenes – one of the reporters outside the courtroom, for example, uses a trumpet’s mute as the earpiece of a telephone.
The acting performances, too, are good right across the board. Yes, pretty much everyone is about twenty years too young for the role they’re playing, but that’s hardly unusual in a production of this show. Special honours go to Adam Barlow’s sad-sack Amos Hart – he nails the Bert Williams act in ‘Mr. Cellophane’, white gloves and all – but the singing is all good, the zingers all land, and this company is giving a thoroughly entertaining account of the show. Yes, some of the American accents are a bit wonky; yes, putting Helen Power and Marianne Benedict (Roxie and Velma) in wigs and costumes that make them look like Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played their parts in the movie version, is a strikingly unimaginative choice; and yes, it’s fair to say that not all of the choreography is executed quite as slickly as you’d have expected in the West End revival, but it really doesn’t matter: this production is not as cool or as sexy as the show has sometimes been in the past, but the show has possibly never been more fun than it is here. This, first and foremost, is a musical comedy. It’s sharp, colourful, strikingly performed, and very, very funny indeed, and the cast – all of them – are clearly having a wonderful time. Yes, it’s very definitely a scaled-down production, but the gains far outweigh the few losses.
It’s also – and this is a bigger achievement than you might think – accomplished with a fraction of the resources available to a commercial West End or Broadway production, and has tickets on sale at just one-third of the average top price for a West End musical. In terms of bang for your buck, when it comes to musical theatre in the UK, this Chicago is just about as good as it gets.
Any criticisms at all? Just one, and it’s of the theatre rather than the show. I love the Coliseum. I’ve been going there, off and on, since I was a very young child – it’s at least 35 years since I first set foot in there. I think they’re great, I think they’re Oldham’s most valuable cultural institution, I think the recent renovation is terrific, I am impressed that they refuse to overcharge for drinks and programmes, and their box-office staff are unfailingly helpful. They’ve now introduced a print-at-home facility for online bookings, and unlike some
gougers ticket agencies, they don’t charge an additional fee for it … but the receipt you print off in lieu of a ticket, although it does include your seat number, makes no mention at all of whether the seat you’ve booked is in the stalls or the circle. I knew what seat I’d booked, but that’s an argument waiting to happen, and it needs to be changed.
You know how the phrase ‘feelgood movie’ usually makes most sane individuals want to run screaming from the cinema before the trailers are over? Not this time. Sunshine on Leith, a new film musical built, unlikely as it may seem, around the songs of The Proclaimers, is that rare cinematic achievement: an unabashedly feelgood entertainment that doesn’t make you want to set fire to your own eyeballs while jamming steak knives into your ears. In fact, it’s better than that. Not only will it not make you want to self-harm, it might actually even send you out of the cinema – at the end of the film, not the beginning – bathed in sunshine. Given how often the sun shines in Edinburgh, where the film is set, that’s something worth celebrating.
On paper, true, it looks unpromising, although it’s based on a successful stage show (originally presented at Dundee Rep in 2007). And of course, since it’s a jukebox musical, the plot is strung together from a set of vague suggestions from the song lyrics, which shouldn’t help either. Since we’re dealing with The Proclaimers, you’ve probably guessed in advance that someone in the film will be moving abroad so that they can send a Letter From America, that a pair of young Scotsmen will be central to the plot, that someone will be on their way from misery to happiness (aha aha aha), that the cast of characters will include someone called Jean, that there’ll be a (sung) marriage proposal, and that someone will be told they Should Have Been Loved. You would also, faced with the prospect of a Proclaimers musical, probably want to put money on the finale being I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).
It’s not giving anything at all away to reveal that in Stephen Greenhorn’s screenplay, every last one of those predictions comes true. The plot, such as it is, is a sticky mess of Family Drama clichés mixed with boy-meets-girl clichés, plopped down in the middle of the most picture-postcard version of Edinburgh you could possibly imagine. There’s a long-lost daughter, a health crisis, a marriage possibly going off the rails, young love gone wrong, and a whole long list of other plot twists pulled apparently at random from pretty much any early-evening ITV1 drama made at any time during the past thirty years. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because this film grabs you in the opening minute and doesn’t let you go.
The short prologue, in fact, sends a clear signal that you’re not in for a hundred-minute cheeseball of a movie: we aren’t in Edinburgh, we’re in Afghanistan, in the back of an armoured personnel carrier that’s one of a convoy of vehicles carrying troops back to base. The convoy moves slowly down the road as the soldiers inside sing Sky Takes the Soul. It’s a stark, powerful opening, and it clearly signals that not everything that follows is quite as fluffy as it looks. The plot follows Ally and Davy, two of the soldiers in that battle bus, as they return home to Edinburgh and try to build a new life following their discharge from the army. Some of their colleagues have been maimed,and some have been killed; their own choices seem limited to working in a call-centre or going back to a place where their lives could be ended at any moment.
And yet, paradoxically, it’s an incredibly charming film. Part of the credit for that goes to Edinburgh itself – as lovingly filmed by George Richmond under the very assured direction of Dexter Fletcher, it looks, here, like a truly enchanted, enchanting city. And more of the credit must go to the songs: divorced from the Reid Brothers’ own rather idiosyncratic performance style, they emerge as not only durable, but beautiful. There’s a flinty, unsentimental poetry to these songs, and an emotional depth that sneaks up on you – but at the same time, this music is fun, and very nearly impossible to resist. It doesn’t matter that the lyrics sometimes have only a tenuous connection to the plot – you can’t help but be carried along for the ride.
The songs are matched, too, by pitch-perfect performances right across the cast. No, not everybody here is a technically perfect singer – Peter Mullan, as you’d expect, sounds like Tom Waits, if Tom Waits had been buried in a pit of gravel and razor blades for the last ten years – but the somewhat artless singing style really suits this music. Kevin Guthrie and George MacKay find the perfect mix of gravity and goofiness as Ally and Davy, and Freya Mavor and Antonia Thomas are absolutely delightful as their girlfriends. Mullan – so often seen playing criminals or thugs – is perfect, rough singing and all, and the supporting performances – including Jason Flemyng as a dour curator who, two-thirds of the way into the film, gets to gyrate through the corridors of the Scottish National Gallery giving a hip-swivelling performance of ‘Should Have Been Loved’ that may, judging by the way he throws himself into it, be the most fun any actor has ever had on a film set – are absolutely spot-on. Towering above them all is Jane Horrocks as Davy’s mum Jean. Without a strong director, Horrocks’s work can be overly cutesy; here, she’s funny when she needs to be, but she approaches the role with enormous restraint, and it pays off in spades. The hospital scene in which she gives a quiet, unshowy rendition of the beautiful title song is the film’s emotional peak (not to mention one of the very best things she’s ever done). It’s a lovely, genuinely moving moment in a film that could easily have come across as painfully contrived.
Fletcher, for his part, does an enormously confident job of negotiating the tricky shifts from speech to song and back again, and never lets the pace drop, and the result is a taut 100-minute film that picks you up on a wave of energy and never lets you go until the closing credits roll. Of all the movie musicals made over the past decade or so, from Chicago to Phantom to Rent to Mamma Mia to Hairspray to Les Mis, this one is possibly the most purely entertaining. Fletcher and his cast and crew simply never put a foot wrong; by the time that finale rolls around – yes, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), performed on the plaza outside the Scottish National Gallery by MacKay and Thomas along with, apparently, everybody else who was in Edinburgh that day, you’ll possibly have shed a tear, and you’ll almost certainly have a great big goofy grin all over your face.
One warning: it will be months, probably, before you get that song out of your head afterwards. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.