After the matinee of the excellent Woman in Mind, it was time for another long-awaited premiere, Daniel Evans’ production of Local Hero, the stage version of that much loved 1983 film, starring Burt Lancaster as the stargazing oil tycoon Happer and Peter Riegert as his emissary Mac, sent to the Scottish Highlands to negotiate the purchase of an entire village so that it can be turned into one giant refinery. But as Mac grows fonder of this magical remote environment, and its quirky, lovable inhabitants, he starts to wonder if he’s doing the right thing.
I should state that the performance we saw was the first preview, and it is possibly unfair to judge the show with what you might see today now that it’s more bedded-in. It was a little slow at times and a little cumbersome moving from scene to scene, all of which I am sure will have been tightened up now. Of course, its plot won’t have changed over the past week – and it’s a story with obvious, timeless appeal. If environmental worries were a big thing in 1983, they’re off the scale now. And with the world worrying about how it’s going to pay its next fuel bill, this new version, that inter alia questions the value of the oil industry (and other similar industries), couldn’t be more appropriate.
But what does the new musical show give us, that the original film doesn’t? Sadly, the answer, I fear, is nothing. In fact, there’s something strangely sterile about this show. Rather than bringing the story right into the present time, it encapsulates and preserves it somewhere in history. Perhaps it’s the reliance on the phone box – there were no mobile phones in 1983, and it’s increasingly hard to imagine a world without them. Perhaps it’s the oddness of the set – an ugly steel backdrop onto which projections can be made, and with a beach coastline that has to be dug up by the cast from underneath the flooring of the Houston office. The steel backdrop works well for the opening number, A Barrel of Oil, as the Texan executives and traders scamper around to a scrolling back projection of 1983-style computer graphics, adding up to a suggestion of millions of dollars being flung here and there. But it feels out of place when virtually all the rest of the show is set in the sleepy natural environment of Ferness. In another interesting staging decision, most of the band are perched to the side of the audience in what appears to be an extension of the seating, thereby creating a distraction from the action on the stage – more than once did I find it more interesting to watch the keyboard player singing along to the songs rather than the cast.
So, yes, it was the first preview and allowances must be made; but you can’t change the set and you can’t change the score, wherein lies the show’s biggest weakness. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, any musical succeeds or fails on the strength of its score. And I’m sorry to say that Mark Knopfler’s new songs for the show contain no show-stopping numbers, or even anything mildly memorable. The catchiest song is Filthy Dirty Rich, which is what the villagers sing when they realise they could make a fortune from selling the village to the oil company; but it’s only memorable because that title phrase is repeated mantra-like so many times that it’s impossible to get it out of your head (and not in a good way.) Apart from that, I found the music uninspired and the lyrics depressingly uninventive and repetitive. As an example, Viktor, the visiting Russian boatman/capitalist, has a short song which, if I remember rightly, comprises of his repeating his name several times. We’re not talking Cole Porter here.
The lead role of Mac is taken by Tony award-winning Gabriel Ebert on his UK stage debut. Mr Ebert has an impressive CV as long as your arm, although he’s completely new to me. He has a genial stage presence and weaves the story along nicely but I felt his voice was a little tentative to be carrying the lead role in a musical. Paul Higgins is very good as Gordon, the village entrepreneur who does everything from running the pub, doing everyone’s accounts to probably painting and decorating your house too. I wondered if it was a coincidence that visually he has the look of the young(-ish) Denis Lawson who took the role in the film. Either way, it’s a confident and enjoyable performance.
Stealing the show in every scene, however, is the esteemed Hilton McRae as Ben, the beach-dweller who refuses to sell. There are few roles that Mr McRae can’t excel in, and here he is terrific with the character’s well-reasoned stubbornness and admirable adherence to the old values. Such as shame that Mr Knopfler has given him the bland and repetitive Cheerio Away Ye Go as his main song. The rest of the cast work well as an ensemble, and there are some entertaining moments; the beginning of the second act, for example, really gives you a feeling of what it’s like to have the mother of all hangovers.
But without a decent score to get your teeth into, and without any modernisation of the plot, the best this production can do is to offer you a different way at looking at a familiar old story; and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why you would need to do that. However – and this is a big however – I note that for the last week Twitter has been surging with love for this new production, so I completely accept this is more my problem than the production’s. It would be a sad world if we all liked the same things.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan