Feature: Preview of An Appointment With the Wicker Man, by the NTS

Up In Flames

The National Theatre of Scotland hopes a production inspired by cult movie The Wicker Man will fill the nation’s playhouses. By Mark Brown

Here’s a good, if possibly never-ending, party game. Name a stage musical or play based upon a popular movie. Grease, Spamalot, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Whisky Galore … the list seems endless. You can now add The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult classic, which is the inspiration for the latest production by the National Theatre of Scotland. Scripted by comic actor-writers Greg Hemphill and Donald McLeary, An Appointment With The Wicker Man is described by the NTS as “a love letter” to the film on which “someone forgot to pay the postage”.

In the play, we see the amateur dramatic company of an isolated Scottish island attempt a stage adaptation of the movie. Problem is, the Loch Parry Players have lost their male lead, Roger, who has gone missing, somewhat mysteriously. Thankfully, however, professional actor Rory Mulligan, star of hit TV cop show Bloodbeat, has agreed to come over from the mainland to take on the ‘Edward Woodward role’ of Sergeant Neil Howie. What ensues promises to be, in the words of NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone, “out-of-season panto for grown-ups”.

Hemphill and McLeary aren’t the first people to see the funny side of The Wicker Man. At the risk of being burned alive by the movie’s cult following, I have to say that watching the film for the first time, some 39 years after the horror thriller was released, I’m struck by its unintended comedy. I’m amused, in particular, by its combination of paganism with a ‘free love’ ideology which seems to owe as much to The Benny Hill Show as to the hippy revolution of the 1960s. The story of upright Christian Sergeant Howie’s search for a young girl he believes is to be sacrificed by the megalomaniac Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and an island population in thrall to his warped form of pagan religion has more inconsistencies than a Jeffrey Archer court appearance.

“I love the movie,” says Featherstone. “I think it’s an explosion of mad creativity. It’s such a moment in time, in terms of when you could even make something like that. So much of it is incohesive, but it gets by on its passion. I love the aesthetic of it, and we’re playing with that here; it’s very much a case of every idea goes in the movie. That’s what’s great about the conceit we’ve found for this; you can put everything into it. The amateur dramatic thing lends itself to the film’s flavour.”

Take a look at the cast list – which includes Hemphill and Still Game co-star Paul Riley, acclaimed comic actor Jimmy Chisholm and Sean Biggerstaff of Harry Potter fame – and one can see that the NTS is aiming to create a piece of popular comic theatre which is an homage to, yet distinct from, Hardy’s film.

“I was excited to be creating a piece of comedy/horror feelgood entertainment for the kind of audience who don’t often consider themselves theatregoers,” says the director. “I envisage the audience as being people who watch TV comedy and films. Our starting point was whether we could create a piece of theatre for that kind of audience. Then we came up with this idea.”

Which is not to say, the director is quick to add, that this is an Alan Ayckbourn-style metatheatrical comedy in which we simply laugh at professional actors pretending to be bad actors. “We’ve done masses of improvisation,” she explains. “The things that go wrong are really borne out of the way we’ve developed the characters, and what the characters get wrong. It’s not just us throwing bad theatre jokes at it at all. ”

One can get a sense of the development of the characters from the promotional video on the NTS’s website. Here, the cast appear in character, talking about their staging of The Wicker Man. Hemphill, who plays Finlay Fothergill (egotistical, self-titled “head of the Loch Parry Players”), and Riley (whose Fran is a hilariously confused actor with the Players) are particularly good value.

Featherstone is delighted, both with Hemphill and McLeary’s script, and with her talented cast. “It’s difficult to come up with ideas for this element of the programme,” she says, with regard to the NTS’s popular theatre strand. “When I speak to artists [in Scottish theatre], they want to do weird and wonderful things no-one else will let them do.”

The director is clearly enjoying making a show which is unashamedly a piece of popular entertainment. “The whole team are having a ball. We’re also being quite tough on ourselves, in terms of thinking about what the audience are going to like..”

The result of this process of brainstorming, improvising and fine-tuning is, Featherstone believes, a play which is, in the words of the late, great theatre maker John McGrath, “a good night out”. But one, she adds, which is also “serious about its adoration of the film”.

An Appointment With The Wicker Man opens at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, February 21-25, before touring to Glasgow, Inverness and Dunfermline. For tour details, visit: www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 12, 2012

© Mark Brown

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