New staging brings the iconic 1983 movie’s themes and characters into sharper focus.
Review by David Kettle
“Cult” is probably an over-used adjective, especially when it comes to movies. But there’s undoubtedly something truly special about Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film – about a Texan oil executive on a mission to buy up a section of the Scottish coast for a vast new refinery, only to end up falling in love with the place – that makes it so warmly cherished by certain viewers.
Maybe it’s Local Hero’s disarming mix of laid-back whimsy and harder drama, its unapologetic sentimentality, its surreal eccentricity, its gentle humour. Or maybe it’s the movie’s ironic role-reversal, as villagers grow impatient to plunder their new-found wealth while the swaggering incomer grows ever more enraptured with the place. It’s a mix that’s undoubtedly helped by Mark Knopfler’s evocative original score, whose guitar theme “Going Home” alone can transport you straight back to the ramshackle charm of Ferness and its iconic phone box.
This makes a musical version of the movie quite a natural step, you’d think. So let’s start there. Knopfler’s music plays a pivotal role in the Edinburgh Lyceum Theatre’s new Local Hero musical, co-written by Forsyth and David Greig, the Lyceum’s artistic director, which saunters southwards for a run at the Old Vic in June next year.
Knopfler has written no fewer than 18 new songs for the show but, to be honest, that’s probably a few too many – especially when only a handful of them feel immediately memorable. The stomping ‘Dirty Filthy Rich” as the villagers contemplate their imminent riches and the fantasy wish-fulfilment of “That’d Do Me” stand out, but others are far less distinctive, though Knopfler effectively brings the unmistakable twang of Scottish trad firmly to the fore, aided by a strong seven-piece live ensemble clearly at home in folk music. The very act of transforming Forsyth’s creation into a musical radically alters what was the film’s leisurely pacing, however. Knopfler’s songs inevitably pause the plot for contemplation, but the spoken sections thereby need to move things along, at what sometimes feels like an overly brisk pace.
So yes, despite its faithfulness to often quite small details of dialogue and plot, there are definite differences between the musical and the film. Ditched are young Peter Capaldi’s gauche Danny Oldsen and his (possibly) mermaid lover Marina, but elsewhere, there’s a harder edge and sharper definition to Local Hero the musical’s characters. Stella, the “sort-of” wife of hotelier/solicitor/accountant/taxi driver Gordon (a wonderfully slippery Matthew Pidgeon, just as oily as Denis Lawson in the movie), emerges as arguably the work’s central role, a forthright blow-in from Glasgow there to act as the villagers’ conscience, and given a strong, focused performance by Katrina Bryan (pictured above), who sings beautifully too. Adam Pearce has a wonderfully convincing swagger as Soviet fisherman Viktor, and Julian Forsyth (pictured below with Damian Humbley) makes an interestingly outspoken Ben, the ageing, land-owning beachcomber who proves the stumbling block to the purchasing plans of Texan Mac (Humbley), whose conversion to quiet village life is signposted perhaps a little too clearly.
Designer Scott Pask provides a simple set of miniature houses and stacked crates, all topped by a vast hanging screen that acts as a setting for Luke Halls’s sumptuous projections – of the villagers’ huge skies (looking like smeary Jolomo paintings), of the stars and comets so beloved of oil magnate Happer, of smudged dancers forming the shapes and colours of the northern lights.Local Hero purists might balk at Greig and Forsyth’s changes – or perhaps contemplate what new light they shed on the work’s themes of home and progress, greed and self-sufficiency. There’s no doubt that the musical feels in sharper focus, with a stronger sense of direction and inevitability. And while that brings a new gentle propulsiveness to the plot – nudged along nicely in director John Crowley’s flowing production – it also means that Local Hero the musical is somewhat lighter on whimsy and childlike wonder. Nonetheless, it’s a captivating show that retains all of the movie’s mischievous elusiveness, with an ending that swerves suddenly sideways from apparently inevitable joy to deep sadness.
- Local Hero continues at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre until 4 May 2019, then transfers to the Old Vic in June 2020