David Greig on adapting Local Hero for the Royal Lyceum

Turning a cherished film into a stage musical has been a labour of love for David Greig, writes Fiona Shepherd

Bill Forsyth pictured with David Greig at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The red phone box. Old Ben on his beach. Burt Lancaster in a flat cap. Marina’s webbed toes. Peter Capaldi looking like he’s fresh out of school. And the ravishing, almost mystical coastal landscape. Anyone who has seen Local Hero – and if you have not, why not? – will have their own favourite images of this most ardently cherished of Scottish films, a gentle but whipsmart comedy about an oil executive who is dispatched to Ferness, a coastal village in the Highlands, to negotiate the purchase of land for a refinery project, only to be seduced by the scenery and community.

Local Hero is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, from 19 March until 20 April. To book tickets, visit https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/local-hero

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This 1983 gem recalled the wit and wisdom of Whisky Galore! and presaged Donald Trump’s far less affectionate nice-beach-I’ll-buy-it acquisition of the Menie estate for his golf links. It remains a timeless piece of empathetic storytelling. So no pressure on the crack team who are working on a new stage musical version to be premiered at the Lyceum Theatre in March, in a co-production with London’s Old Vic.

For David Greig, Artistic Director of the Lyceum, adapting Local Hero for the stage is a dream project, bringing together two of the biggest players from the film – writer/director Bill Forsyth and Mark Knopfler, who composed the original soundtrack.

“There was a period in the 80s when Bill Forsyth reinvented Scottishness in a way with these Chekhovian comedies, observing how people really are but with kindness and compassion,” says Greig. “That was what being Scottish was until Trainspotting and Braveheart came along when being Scottish became being hairy and having a beard or running down Leith Walk from the police. There was this little phase when being Scottish was about community and this wry observation on life.

“For me Local Hero is emblematic of that,” he continues. “It’s like lightning in a bottle, a moment of magic that somehow if you tried to describe it shouldn’t really make sense. But something that Bill captured in that film just connects to people. It’s not a placard-waving environmental piece but it’s also not a broad comedy. There’s a yearning in the story. Mac the American, the fish out of water, yearns to belong and be part of all this. He falls in love with a couple [the hotel owners Gordon and Stella] which sounds very contemporary.

“In some ways it’s a story about home. Mac is someone who doesn’t feel at home anywhere and he suddenly finds himself feeling at home in this place but he isn’t home, he can’t stay, so that’s a bittersweet element. And then there’s the fantastic twist that the oil company want to build a giant refinery and you expect the villagers would be saying we don’t want that but they’re actually saying ‘yeah, we’ll make a lot of money’ and that’s just a funny reversal. The story never quite goes towards the cliché, it always goes towards a more humane observation.”

Greig’s love of this subtle, layered tale shines through but the challenge of bringing it to the stage was keenly felt. Plans to adapt as a musical really started to take flight when it emerged that erstwhile Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, whose original music played such an evocative role in the film, was interested in writing the songs for the stage version.

“What became very clear to me was that this musical needed not to be brash and razzle dazzle,” says Greig. “We were looking at a different tone for what a musical could be. Mark’s music isn’t about high kick chorus line. It’s a mix of Americana and folk and his inimitable guitar playing.

“Landscape is always something we are drawn towards, and there is something uncatchable about landscape in Scotland. For the show, we realised that music was our landscape and that was the way we were going to be able to convey to the audience the beauty and timelessness and preciousness of home.

“Local Hero is partly Houston, oil, America and partly Scotland, land, community, so it’s natural that the music blends elements of Scottish folk, country music and Americana but also elements of Mark’s own musical sensibility.”

Completing the core team is stage and film director John Crowley, best known for directing the TV series Boy A and the feature film Brooklyn. “He responds to truth more than showmanship,” says Greig, “and that’s what Bill does too.”

Greig and Forsyth worked together on the script over 18 months, with Greig doing the final polishing. “It’s very hard to imitate a Bill Forsyth line. He does have a way of writing that you know it’s him. It’s like Mark Knopfler’s music, you know it’s him.”

Like the film, the stage version is set in 1983. “There’s something beautiful about a time when we didn’t know that oil was powerful,” says Greig. “If you go back to 1983, it’s not even the height of the oil boom in Scotland. It’s very early days, it’s all slightly haphazard and less corporate than it became.

“As a writer you can simply tell the story, but you know the audience will be having these other reflections on climate change and global warming. So in a way the characters become innocent – they don’t know all of that but we do, and it’s always lovely to look at innocence onstage because it captures something about being human.”

The main characters from the film will all feature in the stage version, including the comet-obsessed oil baron Felix Happer (originally portrayed by Burt Lancaster) and the beachcomber Ben Knox (played by Fulton Mackay in the film). There will be a slightly beefed-up role for hotelier Stella, and the script will bring out the characters in the wider Ferness community. Casting is almost complete, movement workshops have begun and rehearsals start in mid-January. Greig cannot wait for the show to come to life.

“As I get closer to Local Hero I just see how strange and magical it is,” he says. “It captures these more nuanced emotions of loss and ache and homesickness and yearning to belong but I do want to convey that it’s funny and witty with great tunes!”

*Local Hero is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, from 19 March until 20 April.