Review: Local Hero at Chichester's Minerva Theatre offers hauntingly beautiful tale of what really matters in life

Local Hero, book by David Greig, music & lyrics by Mark Knopfler, based on the Bill Forsyth film, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until November 19.
Hilton McRae (as Ben) in LOCAL HERO at Chichester Festival Theatre - Photo by Manuel HarlenHilton McRae (as Ben) in LOCAL HERO at Chichester Festival Theatre - Photo by Manuel Harlen
Hilton McRae (as Ben) in LOCAL HERO at Chichester Festival Theatre - Photo by Manuel Harlen

CFT artistic director Daniel Evans opened what has turned out to be his final Chichester season with his finest, most important Chichester production of all, Our Generation. But now, as if to underline what we are losing with his departure next spring, he brings his era to an end with a production which is at least its equal. It’s hugely different of course, less urgent and maybe less of the moment, but Local Hero comes with a warmth of heart and an awareness of just what exactly matters in life – qualities which make it utterly irresistible. You know from its opening moments you are going to love it.

The Local Hero title stirs memories of a film nearly 40 years ago which featured instrumental music from Mark Knopfler in his Dire Straits pomp. Now with songs by Knopfler, Local Hero returns as a fully-fledged musical, a story which, all these years later, now finds its true measure on the stage in a production with marries superb set and lighting with first class performances all round.

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How on earth do you convey a beautiful Scottish bay which is threatened with annihilation under a massive US oil refinery? The answer, it seems, is that you go for simplicity, you light it beautifully and you let the actors do the rest. Designer Frankie Bradshaw and Paule Constable with Ryan Day (lighting design) have conjured the perfect platform for us to let our imaginations soar – helped by a terrific cast that vividly creates a sense of community and, just as importantly, all the individuals within it.

And it is into this community that hotshot Texan oil executive Mac MacIntyre wanders with a whopping great cheque book. Gabriel Ebert makes his UK stage debut as Mac, and it is a lovely performance. He’s absolutely not a bad guy, but he just hasn’t got a clue about the kind of wealth that can’t be measured in dollars. The play puts him right about that – and Ebert teases out the transformation beautifully.

Accelerating that change is Lillie Flynn, equally impressive as Stella, a woman who perhaps appreciates the Scottish idyll more for the fact that she is the outsider who has chosen to live there. Or maybe the place has chosen her.

MacIntyre inspires the locals to sing just how Filthy Dirty Rich they are going to get; Stella immediately counters with the hauntingly beautiful Rocks and Water. Also in the mix is the pragmatist Gordon (Paul Higgins), a realist aware just how economically unviable the community has become – again a fine performance. But maybe the performance of the night comes from Hilton McRae as Ben, the very picture of contentment, a man who’s got absolutely everything he could ever want as he sits on the beach in his armchair. What A Life is the perfect song for him in a musical where the music emerges appositely and effortlessly.

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Our Generation seemed pretty unmatchable – until tonight. This is a splendid final production from Daniel Evans, a piece that will make you think but, far more importantly, make you smile. Beautifully, beautifully done from one and all.