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Local Hero at Chichester's Minerva Theatre – review

The hit film heads for the stage

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Gabriel Ebert and Liz Ewing
© Manuel Harlan

It's nearly 40 years since Bill Forsyth's film was released – it flew under the radar to become a much loved, but not widely known cult classic. Its gentle nature combined with Mark Knopfler's soothing guitar strains led to a loyal following – with Knopfler's "Going Home" theme becoming an instantly recognisable instrumental track familiar to many – well, at least those of us of a certain age anyway!

Mac is a Texas business man, as cool and slick as the oil that he deals in. It's 1983 and Scotland is the new oil capital of the world. Mac is sent on a mission to the tiny Shetland coastal village of Ferness with orders to buy up the entire place so that his company can build a new oil refinery right on top of it. It probably doesn't need me to tell you that once Mac experiences the breathtaking surroundings of the Shetlands and meets the endearingly eccentric locals that the deal becomes increasingly unlikely as he shakes off the capitalist ties that bind.

The unsentimental reaction of many of the locals is what sets Forsyth's story apart – as he avoids the immediate clichés. At a time when oil reigned supreme and we were yet to understand the climate crisis that we were blindly walking into, it was money that really talked. The residents of picturesque Ferness find the landscape harsh and difficult to work – they welcome the opportunity to get "Filthy Dirty Rich" and can't wait to escape to an easier life – "It's Ferness, not Narnia" says one local.

It's only Ben, a beachcomber and self-proclaimed Laird, along with Stella, the local barmaid, who are able to see the beauty of the place and still be transported by the wonders of the unpolluted sky that reveals comets, stars and the spectacular northern lights. Frankie Bradshaw's stark metallic set provides a nice canvas onto which Paule Constable's lighting and Ash J Woodward's projection bring this to life particularly well at the end of act one – the Minerva briefly becomes planetarium in effective style.

The iconic red phone box is the main anchor to the film in Daniel Evans' new production – this is also his last as artistic director before taking over at the RSC next year. Evans directs within the small space creatively but ultimately it is in David Greig's book that the meandering nature of the film does not translate onto the stage.

With some significant cuts from the film, characters feel underdeveloped and the whole thing feels too comfortable to consider investing too much worry about the plight of Ferness or its locals. The creation of an odd love triangle between Mac and his two hotelier hosts, Gordon and Stella, is an unnecessary distraction.

Knopfler's ethereal screen score gently paddles along in the background with his familiar guitar sound never far from your ear. He has added numbers for this new musical adaptation which range from the bland and colourless to some more successful upbeat Gaelic sounds. There are occasional breakout moments to get the toes tapping but otherwise it's largely unmemorable. Gabriel Ebert feels tentative as Mac and lacks the emotional depth to believe his transition from outsider to local. Paul Higgins is a likeable Gordon, the hotelier and accountant combined, who acts as negotiator for the villagers. The rewritten role of Stella is given plenty more guts by a nicely engaging and fine voiced Lillie Flynn. Hilton McRae gives a warm and gentle Ben that acts as a nice point of calm in proceedings.

The environmental connotations are largely skimmed over which seems like a missed opportunity and, like much of the rest of this otherwise warm and endearing musical, it is frustratingly unsatisfying.