John Crowley on the “crazy challenge” of directing the Royal Lyceum’s Local Hero musical

John Crowley, centre, with Mark Knopfler, left, and David Greig
John Crowley, centre, with Mark Knopfler, left, and David Greig
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Fiona Shepherd meets the director and actors behind a new stage musical adaptation of Local Hero that’s staying true to the spirit of Bill Forsyth’s much-loved masterpiece

As a teenager, John Crowley was one of many who had a vinyl copy of the evocative Local Hero soundtrack before he ever saw the film. “I used to play it to death,” he recalls, “so when I did see the film I was almost seeing a cinematic version of the soundtrack I loved.”

Unlike many, the acclaimed theatre, film and TV director has gone on to direct a new stage musical adaptation of Local Hero which opens this week at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, with book by Lyceum artistic director David Greig and songs by Mark Knopfler, the composer of that beloved original soundtrack.

“When David first mentioned doing it on stage, I was rather excited about the idea of almost adapting a soundtrack as much as the film,” says Crowley. “It already had an in-built musical identity. There was a ceilidh in the middle of it, which felt like a good centrepiece for a stage show. But the crazy challenge of it was that the film effortlessly photographs landscape and to do that on stage felt a bit perverse so rather than taking the film and just lobbing it on a stage we would try to get the spirit of a moment rather than a literal image.

“We kept coming back to the tone of the film rather than particular shots – that dry-as-a-bone humour, that playful comic touch which is never too broad but which is actually about some very large questions: what’s of value in a landscape? Who gets to tell a community you can’t develop here?”

The musical will flesh out the community in question, the fictional Scottish fishing village of Ferness, as they wrangle with the offer of big money from a Houston oil firm to buy their local beach for development. Prescient parallels with Trump’s acquisition of parts of the Menie estate are there if you want them but this is a timeless and much less toxic story as the landscape also works its magic on Mac, the representative of the oil firm sent to persuade the locals, only to discover they are more than willing to be persuaded.

“It’s about the idea of what it means to leave an innocent version of yourself behind,” says Crowley. “The innocence of the community is shattered by having a huge amount of money dangled and for Mac, falling in love with the idea of a different life that he could have had and realising that you can’t just move somewhere and you can’t go back to your old life either because he’s now seen it could have been different.

“There is a depth of emotion and melancholy to that dilemma of realising that your choices in life led you down a certain road. You stop endlessly scanning the horizon and that’s partly what this story has shaped up to be about, especially the stories of the three principals.”

Those three principals – Mac, the yearning oil executive, and Gordon and Stella, the couple who run the local pub/hotel – are not so much a love triangle as a love Venn diagram, with the landscape and lifestyle of Ferness as a significant fourth element in their interlocking relationship. Actors Damian Humbley, Matthew Pidgeon and Katrina Bryan are charged with bringing this nuanced interplay to life.

“What I really enjoy about the story of these three is that it’s real, it’s adult,” says Bryan. “Gordon and Stella have got a slightly unorthodox relationship, but they are a solid couple and then life happens. Stella’s got some feelings for Mac but what does that mean for what she’s built with Gordon? It’s so well written in that it’s complex. There’s no bad guy in the show and nobody walks away into the sunset.”

“The theme of the play is home,” says Pidgeon. “What is home? Where is home? Can you buy it? Can you sell it? And as the play and the music builds, you find it gets very moving. Places change, but it’s people you need to hold on to.”

“The local people make the point that you can be bowled over by how beautiful it is but we’re the ones that live here and graft to survive,” says Bryan. “There’s a great line that you can’t eat scenery.”

The actors are full of praise for their director, who is best known for the 2015 feature film Brooklyn but has also worked at the Lyceum, co-directing its 1993 production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder with Brian Cox.

“He brings a fantastic, creative atmosphere,” says Pidgeon. “We’re creating something new so everyone’s being very adaptable and happy to change things.”

“It’s beautifully collaborative and that comes from the top down,” says Humbley. “We’ve all worked with people who aren’t that collaborative, but John really leads a room of conversations. I think the wonderful thing about this, having worked on other musicals, is there has been time. We’ve been rehearsing in London for four weeks, in Edinburgh for two weeks and then two more weeks of technically putting it together and seeing how the idea of this landscape fits on the stage. It’s not often you get that luxury to create what I think could be a masterful piece of music theatre.”

New songs, script rewrites and character development have all been part of the rehearsal process, but there is no sense of a frantic retooling process. Instead, all is calm, cohesive and consistent with the spirit of Bill Forsyth’s much loved film.

“It stands alongside,” says Crowley. “It’s not trying to replace the film in any way, any more than a film of a book is trying to replace the book. It’s a fine line but you either betray the book or you betray the film and ultimately what we are trying to do is create a really exciting piece of theatre that is in love with the film but isn’t slavishly putting it on stage. It’s finding new and highly theatrical ways of expressing in a completely different form what was glorious about the film.”

Local Hero is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from Thursday until 4 May