It is 1983 and there is an American in paradise. Mac arrives in Ferness, a coastal village in north-west Scotland, cradling two briefcases and an injured rabbit. He has flown in from Texas and is in need of a drop of the hard stuff, whisky, and rather more than a drop of the black stuff – oil. Mac’s energy firm wishes to buy the village and beach, and build a huge refinery in their place. But will the villagers sell? What price, if any, can one put on home?
These are questions posed by Local Hero, a new musical based on Bill Forsyth’s beloved 1983 film. Adapting it for the stage has brought two challenges, the first physical. Much of the original’s poetry came from simply pointing the camera at sea and sky. It was easy to understand how Mac could fall in love with and be changed for the better by such a place. Who wouldn’t be? Such beauty has moral force, and director John Crowley enjoys reasonable success in suggesting it through effects – sunsets, the aurora borealis – projected on to a planetarium-like screen. The darkened auditorium stands for the horizon and lapping Atlantic; during ballads, singers stare out, yearning, above the audience’s heads. It helps that most who see this production in Edinburgh will have personal experience of that landscape. They will know the ache of a Highland twilight, the way that sorrow is an invisible band in the colour spectrum. This cannot be relied upon when the show transfers to London next year.
The second challenge is knottier: capturing the feel, the ineffable Forsythness, of the film. Forsyth’s aesthetic is a tender melancholic whimsy. The men in his films are boyish, delighted by shooting stars and summer skies, forever seeking nice girls to make their knees weak.
Forsyth is a co-writer of this musical, together with the Royal Lyceum’s artistic director, David Greig, and their collaboration has created a change in tone. The humour is saltier, the male leads tougher and, as for those nice girls, well, there are more of them, they’re real grownups and they aren’t quite as nice. Stella, the hotel cook, was a sparkle-eyed cypher in the film; here, played by Katrina Bryan, she is, arguably, the title character, the hero who stands up for her locale, even though, as a Glaswegian, she is an incomer herself. “You won’t see the stars for the light,” she warns against the refinery, as someone named Stella ought. She has some enjoyably spiky scenes with Mac, played by Damian Humbley – gallus versus Dallas.
Mark Knopfler, whose score was so much part of the film’s charm, wrote the music and lyrics for the new songs. They carry the story and themes well enough, but you feel the lack of a true showstopper. Filthy Dirty Rich comes closest, Matthew Pidgeon, as Gordon the innkeeper, embodying its priapic ceilidh energy. Risking friction burns, he does the pelvic thrust wearing green jumbo cords.
The creative team have been admirably unafraid to allow an often very funny production to be sad deep in its bones. It is a calculated gamble. They know they have joy on tap: Knopfler’s celebrated Local Hero theme tune, Going Home, without which, like the iconic red telephone box, this show would be unimaginable. When these ring out, hearts lift.
• At the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 4 May. At the Old Vic, London, from June 2020.