Behind the scenes of Sunshine on Leith

Sunshine on Leith is West Yorkshire Playhouse's last show before its refurbishment. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

The cast of Sunshine on Leith.
The cast of Sunshine on Leith.

As anyone in showbiz will tell you, you need to leave ’em wanting more and finish on a high note.

James Brining, the man in charge of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is doing just that.

The theatre is about to close for a huge, year-long refurbishment that will see the building transform. While everything and everyone in the theatre is geared at that bright new future, Brining is remembering the showbiz adage.

“There are a few more productions before we close, but this is my last show before the revamp and I want to leave the people who come to this show with a great memory of being in this space,” says Brining.

It’s a smart move. While the West Yorkshire Playhouse will continue to stage work in a pop-up venue, it won’t be the same for audiences as going into the theatre, and leaving people with good memories of the last time they were in the Playhouse is vitally important.

Which also meant that the choice of show was a heavy responsibility. It seems, from early reaction (a full review will be in next week’s Culture) Brining has chosen well. The Proclaimers musical, to give it its unofficial title, Sunshine on Leith is the crowd pleaser Brining has picked to close the theatre with. It’s a show he directed for its world premiere when he was running the previous theatre of which he had charge, the Dundee Rep. An obvious choice, you might think. Not so, says Brining.

“I really agonised over doing this again,” says the artistic director.

“Way back when I first created it in Dundee I had been speaking to the writer Stephen Greenhorn about doing a musical. We looked around for existing music and he came up with a brilliant script using the music of The Proclaimers. We ended up doing the show three times and it was really successful, winning the TMA award for Best Musical.

“Then, probably because it had been so successful, I had a meeting with Andrew Macdonald, the film producer who made Trainspotting and he said he wanted to turn it into a film. I had nothing to do with the film, but I was pleased that it was made. But with all of that, it felt like it had been done, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to return to it again.”

So, Brining was pondering on it. Then a number of different things occurred to him. First was the fact that, now that Sunshine on Leith was a hit film, it was only a matter of time before it was staged once again. He says it would have felt odd, having co-created the piece, had it been staged again without his involvement.

Then there was the music of The Proclaimers. “I was talking to a scout master here in Leeds where my son goes to Scouts and he was talking to me about how much he loved The Proclaimers. Then I was chatting with Ian Sime (general manager at Leeds Grand Theatre) and he was saying how they always sell out when they play is there and if I ever did do Sunshine on Leith, he would love to see it at the Grand,” says Brining.

The final fan was Robin Hawkes, the Playhouse’s executive director, who told him that he used to hear the music of The Proclaimers courtesy of his father. The point is, there was clearly an appetite for the music of the Scottish brothers.

“The final thing was thinking back to what the play is about. On the face of it, the story is about three couples and their lives, but fundamentally it’s really about home and what that means in terms of where we’re from, where we live, the communities we belong to and that feels like a question that’s really present today. The first word of the play is ‘home’ and when we did it in Dundee it was before the vote for independence and before Brexit, but looking back at it since those huge changes, that theme of home feels far more present.”

Brining, clearly, was convinced. Sunshine on Leith was the right note on which to bow out – temporarily – of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

There is also something more fundamental at play. Since he took over six years ago, Brining has had a massive impact on the theatre. As a director his plays Sweeney Todd, Ode to Leeds, Enjoy and The Fall of the Master Builder have shown someone who is in touch with the city and who is as at home directing epic serious work and crowd pleasing fare. The two, says Brining, can go hand in hand. “There is a bit of a dichotomy in English theatre between what is considered high art and what is thought of as popular culture,” says Brining. “There is a sense that something that is popular can’t be worthy of the title of high art, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be high quality. It’s as though when people see something and they have a great time watching it, that means it can’t be high quality art, but I just don’t see that as being true.

“Seeing people leave the theatre having had a brilliant night out and seen something uplifting is, I think, a great thing.”

Sunshine on Leith is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, to May 19. Tickets from the box office on 0113 2137700 or via