The basic premise is golden, unbeatable. A Scottish am-dram society, the Loch Parry Players, are staging a version of the Wicker Man and have been obliged to draft in a professional actor from the mainland to replace their leading man, Roger Morgan, who has gone missing in mysterious circumstances. As meta-theatrical frameworks go, you couldn’t ask for a richer one. It quivers with potential. There are so many ways they could take it. But the creative team behind this update of Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror classic never really fulfil that promise.
Clearly intended as a loving homage from a pair of writers, Greg Hemphill and Donald McLeary, who are both self-confessed Wicker Man obsessives, it falls down because the framing narrative, the production-within-the-production, is so broad in tone. There’s an initially amusing juxtaposition between the worlds of amateur and professional theatre, but the Loch Parry players themselves are cut from the roughest cloth: there’s a randy wardrobe mistress, Morag, her camp-as-Christmas, purple Lycra-clad husband, Callum, and the permanently drugged-up technician, Fran. Only Rory, the Glaswegian television actor and stand-in for Officer Howie – played by Sean Biggerstaff (a name ripe for Restoration comedy if there ever was one) – doesn’t eat the scenery and chase it down with a pint of Irn Bru. While the contrast is clearly intentional and works within the framework of the production it doesn’t stop it grating, just as inserting a big Broadway-style number in at the beginning and then commenting on its crassness and inappropriateness doesn’t entirely excuse it.
Some of the references are admittedly delicious. There is a whole section devoted to the moment where Lord Summerisle sends a boy up to Willow’s bedroom to be ‘sacrificed to Aphrodite’ complete with the snail-mating sequence, which was cut from the original theatrical release. May Morrison’s sweet shop, with its phallic candies and pagan jelly tots, is also referenced though much to Rory’s frustration the Loch Parry version is only stocked with out-of-date Curly Wurlies
There are some lovely throw-away lines too: one character gushes about being a huge fan of Nicholas Cage when asked if she’s ever actually seen the film, somebody else mentions The Equalizer. They save the famous seduction sequence to the end. In the film this was a writhing, primal explosion of a scene performed to Paul Giovanni’s sensuous Willow’s Song (most of the film’s original music is recreated here, another small pleasure of the production), with Britt Ekland slapping the adjoining tavern wall with her palms while the virginal Edward Woodward sweated, cowered and all but combusted in his bed. Ekland memorably required a body-double for certain shots; here the scene is replicated with Sally Reid’s Marie wearing a comedy nude suit complete with bean-bag tits and a Mick Hucknall wig affixed to her pubic triangle. So much of the humour comes down to bums and boobs, which is fine in and of itself, but it also means that the epic pile up of revelations about the various characters’ emotional lives that fills the last ten minutes has zero value.
What really riles is the fact that there are a couple of genuinely unnerving moments scattered throughout Vicky Featherstone’s production, a couple of skin-tingling instances where the performers creep around the stage in animal masks and an air of the sinister pervades. But these moments are constantly undercut by its insistence on silliness when conversely the production is at its strongest when it plays things comparatively straight, when it allows its characters to be characters rather than ‘types.’
While you have to admire a production that inserts one of Woodward’s anguished cries to his Christ into its big musical finale, the image that lingers is not of a burning effigy – though all credit to designer Chloe Lamford for creating an impressive Wicker Man/Iron Giant hybrid for the last scenes – but of this glorious gift an idea being so poorly realised, of all that potential going up in smoke.