During the pandemic, Pitlochry Festival Theatre led the way in terms of getting local live theatre back on its feet,.
This was largely due to having its own beautiful gardens where inventive outdoor stages could be constructed.
Now, with the beginning of its 2022 summer season, PFT is ready to welcome audiences back indoors once more.
Back with even more
Not just to its main auditorium, but to the newly-built studio constructed during lockdown, and to its still-in-use outdoor spaces.
For the celebratory opening, the first show up is Scotland’s most successful musical of recent times.
Sunshine On Leith is a play Pitlochry’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman has history with.
Before joining PFT in 2018, she was artistic director at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, where she first tried to put it on.
Yet James Brining, who directed the first version of the show when he was at Dundee Rep, already had the rights to stage it at his new home, Leeds Playhouse.
“When I was in Bolton, we did Summer Holiday because I couldn’t get the rights to do Sunshine On Leith,” she says. Summer Holiday was a hit in Bolton, and again when it became her first production at Pitlochry
‘Playwright Stephen Greenhorn is a genius’
“Sunshine On Leith is one of the most extraordinary musicals, and I think (playwright) Stephen Greenhorn is a genius.
“What he’s managed to do with the play itself, with those people and how you care about them, and then worked that around the Proclaimers’ music, is extraordinary.
The pandemic caused Newman to ask for the rights once again, and this time they were available.
The show is a co-production with Edinburgh’s Capital Theatres, and it will also be playing at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre amid its Pitlochry run.
A nice symmetry
Newman says there’s a nice symmetry between the fact it’s opening up Pitlochry’s auditorium while also closing the King’s for refurbishment.
Beyond trying to get the musical produced, Newman also has history with the Proclaimers and their music.
At her co-director on the show Ben Occhipinti’s wedding, she got up and led everyone in a version of I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), while an appearance on the BBC’s Front Row programme saw her meet Craig and Charlie Reid.
“I was really inappropriate,” she laughs. “I got way too close during that awkward bit beforehand when you’re all stuck in a room together.
“I told them, oh god, I love your music so much. I might have even sung one of their songs to them.
“Luckily once we’d done Front Row they thought, ‘she’s not entirely off the wall, she’s talking some sense about politics and the show she’s making.’
A rights tale
“Afterwards they asked,’ you really do love our music, don’t you?’ Yes, I do! Oh, they said, there’s a musical, Sunshine On Leith, you should do that.
“I said, I know – I can’t get the rights! Yeah, I think they’re incredible, and I love the fact their music speaks to everyone, it taps into something on a really profound level.”
Here she quotes the first verse of Sky Takes the Soul as an example of what she means, but manages to hold back from singing it down the phone line.
“As we were rehearsing Sunshine On Leith down in Leeds, we were hearing stories about this production of Summer Holiday happening across the Pennines,” says writer Stephen Greenhorn.
“We were seeing all these rave reviews, and I was thinking, this sounds amazing – who is this director?”
His contribution to 2020’s Shades of Tay series of short audio plays was his first collaboration with Newman.
Big, timeless themes
“The show is about big themes which ought to be timeless,” says Greenhorn, “but the way it lands, it’s different every time depending on the climate it’s played in.
“We’re doing it in Pitlochry now on the back of two years of isolation, so there are certain elements that resonate more strongly, its themes of endurance (we’ll come back to this) and the importance of family and a sense of loss.
“Whereas certain elements were probably more striking when we first did it in Dundee, about the two guys coming back from a desert warzone, that was a very specific moment.
“There are all the various political threads running through the show as well, in terms of, what do you do about the feeling democracy seems to be failing you?
“For different audiences at different times, that’s been about different elements of where we’ve been at politically.
“So the themes are universal and timeless, but the audience will find the stuff that resonates for them now, without me trying to dictate about where I think the relevance ought to be.”
Although there have been amateur productions, and the film adaptation was a hit in Scotland, this will be the first professional production of Sunshine On Leith since it was originally staged by Dundee Rep in 2007, then toured extensively.
A life of its own
“With what’s happened (to the play since), a Proclaimers musical seems like a no-brainer,” says Greenhorn. “But actually, it really wasn’t obvious. If it had been, somebody would have done it before.
“To Dundee Rep’s credit, there was a sense of a huge risk about it and I’m forever grateful to them for seeing it through. It’s a credit to that boldness that it’s gone off to have a life of its own apart from them, and apart from me now as well.”
The comedy Noises Off
The other big summer premiere happening at Pitlochry this week is Michael Frayn’s classic, Olivier Award-winning comedy Noises Off.
Newman is presenting it in celebration of its 40th anniversary.
“It’s one of the funniest plays ever written, and you don’t have to know theatre to love it,” she says.
“Big plays like this aren’t done as often, because it has a large cast, so at Pitlochry we need to keep doing these big plays, because we have the ensemble to do it.”
This year PFT will be using 22 performers throughout the season.
Noises Off is a play about another play, a comedy about a hapless theatre company touring a rude 1970s show named Nothing On.
It’s a play which celebrates theatre in its own way, which makes it one perfect choice among many for Pitlochry’s full return to onstage action in 2022.
A celebration of people
“Totally – and it’s also a celebration of people,” she reflects. “You know, if there’s something that’s being spoken about in all of these pieces, it’s a sense of endurance.
“Stephen brought that up about Sunshine on Leith, when he mentioned to me that it’s about enduring love, and as he was saying it I thought about all of our other plays.”
She leads us through the rest of PFT’s summer programme. Mark Powell’s family adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, of course, has endurance built into the story.
The theme also applies to the support worker and the woman she’s caring for in Cathy Forde’s Helping Hands.
It also applies to the daughters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (adapted by Anne-Marie Casey and co-presented with Watford Palace Theatre) surviving wartime, and the migrant sisters enduring the pandemic and each other’s company in Sara Shaarawi’s Sister Radio.
The endurance theme continues
“(Martin McCormick’s) The Maggie Wall has this essence of needing to go through the experience and endure it in order to make sense of what’s happened,” continues Newman.
“(Noel Coward’s) Private Lives is about enduring love in a different way. Noises Off is an act of endurance for the actors and also the company within the company.
“Under Another Sky (adapted by David Greig from Charlotte Higgins’ book) is utterly about the endurance of the Caledonians to resist the Romans.
“I only realised the connection when Stephen was talking about Sunshine On Leith, and I feel like that’s what we’ve been doing during the pandemic – it did feel like the ultimate act of endurance, didn’t it?
“That feeling that we will persist, until we get to a place where we don’t have to endure anymore.”
Now, with the opening of PFT’s new spaces and the arrival of its excellent repertoire of summer work, it isn’t a feeling we have to experience in private any more.
As someone who’s seen her theatre through the whole pandemic with hard work and passionate dedication, what have the last two years taught Newman about her business?
Lessons from the pandemic
“We learned so much,” she says. “Audiences who don’t want to sit outside are not going to sit outside, they know how they like to see theatre and they’re waiting for you to reopen, and that’s fine.
A lot of people do want to be outside, though, and they’re up for sitting in the trees or in a garden. Family audiences are out there and we should be serving them.
“We learned some people are really up for trying new things who maybe haven’t been coming, because what we’ve been producing has been very popular.
“What will definitely be our studio theatre audience is inclined to new writing and things they don’t know. Heat flummoxes outdoor companies, not cold and wet, and it gets very hot in Pitlochry when you’re running about onstage.
“But we also learned that audiences are really up for sitting in the rain, if they signed up for it.
“We learned tons,” she says. “The list goes on. We also learned we could make a lot out of not very much, as well.”
- Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s 2022 season starts with Sunshine on Leith, which begins this evening and runs until October 1, then Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, which begins on Friday May 27 and also runs October 1. See pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com for full details.