How do you put a beach on to a stage? It was bound to be a perilous project, taking what is possibly Scotland’s best-loved film, Local Hero, more than three decades after its release and transforming it into musical theatre. It is made even more so when the central character is arguably the mystical, magical Highland beach, which captivates the dollar-driven oil executive Mac in Bill Forsyth’s unobtrusive fairytale.
“You’re not supposed to do landscape on stage,” says the production’s Oscar-nominated director John Crowley, whose credits include Brooklyn, Boy A and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. “The idea of trying to find a theatrical expression for that really intrigued me.”
“The music evokes and stands in for the landscape,” adds David Greig, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Lyceum, where the eagerly anticipated show will premiere this week. He has co-written the stage version with Forsyth himself.
The original soundtrack for Local Hero was composed by Mark Knopfler, who was born in Glasgow, and whose involvement is credited with bringing the film to a wider, more international audience. Knopfler ought to exude the casual confidence of a man familiar with selling out stadiums, but he brings only humility to Local Hero. “With a musical, this is my first attempt,” he says. “To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure I could do it at all.”
It’s plain that scoring the 1983 film remains one of the former Dire Straits frontman’s most treasured solo projects. “I remember when I did the film I didn’t want it to be stereotypically Scottish, with bagpipes and tartan shot through every piece. So I tried to create another kind of reality.” His folk-driven interludes did much to evoke the slow unravelling of Peter Riegert’s Mac, as he falls in love with the remote coastal village he has been tasked with acquiring by his eccentric, star-gazing boss Burt Lancaster, so that his company may level it in order to build an oil refinery.
“Once I started writing songs for the characters, I found that I could,” says Knopfler, “so I just carried on. There’s something in the story that’s so powerful. It’s to do with identity, who we are, who we think we are, who we might become. All these big, dramatic questions.”
Talking to the three men in Edinburgh, where they are in final rehearsals, their reverence for the original film and their delight at the prospect of reviving the story are palpable.
“We all come at it from slightly different love affairs [with the film]”, says Crowley. As a teenager in Ireland, he “played the soundtrack to death” before he saw the film. Greig, who grew up in Scotland in the 80s, was a big Forsyth fan “because [with films such as Gregory’s Girl] he created the world in which you lived. There was no other representation of our world.”
The musical is still set in 1983, but with a number of updates to reflect contemporary sensibilities. The role of Stella, the wife of the local pub landlord, is expanded significantly, while the impact of another US businessman, whose efforts to develop a Scottish beach were not welcomed by locals, could not be ignored.
“We did explore the Trump question”, says Greig, “because we were in the middle of making it when he was elected, but actually we all consciously decided to pull back a bit. The audience will already be thinking that and they certainly don’t need us to show them that we agree with them.”
“We didn’t want it to be a cosy oil-bashing thing,” says Crowley, pointing out that the politics in Forsyth’s film were far more nuanced than that. “There’s an economic reality that’s very gently threaded through the film. Forsyth doesn’t do social realism in your face, but a lot of them are working two or three jobs and there’s mention of the lobsters that get landed there, but they’re not eaten by the locals because they’re too expensive.”
“On top of that, if you were given the chance to be a millionaire who’s to say that you can’t because you’ll destroy the environment?” One of the canniest plot twists in the film is that the village is not populated by kilted eco-warriors, but hard-working pragmatists who are desperate to sell up and only want to ensure that the price is right. “It still does ask very real questions about what’s of value to people’s lives: a landscape, lifestyle, community, and who gets to judge what you should or should not do.”
Although the musical will transfer to the Old Vic in London, all three are adamant that the first shows must be seen in Scotland. “It has to be born here,” insists Greig, “because that way we will make something as new for this theatre, this audience and then we’ll see where it flies. But it will be anchored and rooted here.”
• Local Hero is at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, 14 March-4 May.