Joyce McMillan reviews Local Hero at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh.
4 stars ****
A BIG SKY, a beach, a row of tiny houses along a harbour wall; and in the foreground, an old-fashioned red telephone box, glowing in the west highland dusk. Oh yes, it’s Local Hero - but this time not Bill Forsyth’s legendary 1983 film, but the brand new stage musical version, co-produced by the Old Vic in London and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, which celebrated its joyful, touching and - in the end - highly emotional world premier at the Lyceum this weekend.
Unpack the reasons why the Lyceum has felt compelled - twice in this spring season - to create shows based on world-famous films with instant name recognition, and they can seem brutal; much commercial theatre in Britain has been dependent for years on tribute shows that exploit the instant audience-appeal of popular music and film, and now the same box-office imperatives are spreading to the cash-strapped public sector.
If the “show of the film” is set to play a growing part in theatre repertoires, though, then this gorgeous, convivial version of Local Hero - like the recent Lyceum/Bristol Old Vic staging of Touching The Void - demonstrates exactly how to do it, with grace, inventiveness, and a real feeling for the special quality of live theatre. Scripted by Bill Forsyth and David Greig, and featuring a brilliant series of 19 new songs by the film’s original composer Mark Knopfler, the show emerges as a slightly harder-edged version of Forsyth’s original story about a struggling west Highland fishing village suddenly transformed when young oil man “Mac” MacIntyre arrives from Houston, offering untold wealth in return for the right to build a giant oil refinery that would obliterate the village and the bay.
The outstanding feature of John Crowley’s production is the rousingly excellent ensemble work of its terrific 15-strong cast, led by Damian Humbley as Mac, Matthew Pidgeon as local lawyer and hotel owner Gordon Urquhart, and Katrina Bryan as Gordon’s partner Stella, a much more proactive character than her film equivalent. All of them sing magnificently, in Knopfler’s series of eloquent, witty and sometimes breathtakingly lyrical songs, from Mac’s beautiful meditative early ballad Houston We Have A Problem, to pitch-perfect whole-company comic numbers like Gordon’s memorable Filthy, Dirty Rich.
Lucy Hind’s choreography is outstanding; Scott Pask’s set, with its simple harbour wall and great shifting diorama of sky, works brilliantly, and often threatens to take the breath away.
And if the show’s second half is too long, by one song and a couple of false endings, the overall effect is to conjure up again, with added historical perspective and theatrical energy, the pure magic of Bill Forsyth’s original work, 36 years ago: the idea of a possible Scotland that might learn how to exploit or conserve its huge natural resources for the benefit of the whole community, evoked with a comic lightness of touch that deservedly makes Local Hero one of the best-loved Scottish stories of the last half-century, and one with ever-stronger global resonances, across a troubled world.