1973: Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary arrives at Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of young Rowan Morrison, and is confounded by the attitudes of the inhabitants, ranging from ignorance and dismissiveness to outright hostility as they lead him to a sunset appointment with the wicker man. 2012: Actor Rory Milligan is approached by the Loch Parry Players as a last minute replacement for the role of Sergeant Howie in their production of The Wicker Man, but he finds the company as peculiar as their characters and becomes increasingly alarmed that none can offer a convincing answer about the absence of his predecessor.
Written by Greg Hemphill and Donald McLeary, this production from the National Theatre of Scotland had toured earlier in the year, but now arrives at the refurbished Assembly Rooms, their flagship performance for the Edinburgh Fringe, but despite the nonsense and shenanigans apparent onstage from the outset, this play within a play is constructed with knowledge of both the original and the way small town theatre works, and great affection for both.
Under Vicky Featherstone’s direction, with Hemphill himself in the dual roles of leader of the Loch Parry Players and Lord Summerisle within the show, the play races along with pace and energy and Sean Biggerstaff’s Rory moves from bemusement at the incompetence of the company, who when asked what they know of one of the most famous British horror films of all time confirm how much they love the work of Nicholas Cage, to genuine fear as to what his true role may be, but the script has no such uncertainties.
As in Robin Hardy’s film, the soundtrack is the key, and while the choreography for the dance numbers may be deliberately haphazard and shoddy, the music is faithful and honest, with the voices of the company, both collectively through Corn Rigs, The Landlord’s Daughter and Maypole and also solo, as in Sally Reid’s rendition of Willow’s Song, capturing the magic of Paul Giovanni’s arrangements. That performance captures spirit of the show, brazen and ridiculous, meticulously crafted yet hilariously crass.
As significant as the changes required by the addition of the framing story of Rory being drawn into the manipulation of the players is what is included from Robin Hardy’s original vision, such as the balcony scene where the villagers woo mating gastropods with Gently Johnny, deleted from the cinematic release of the film, though it is unlikely he conceived the serenade with sets or greenery leftover from previous Loch Parry productions of Romeo and Juliet and Jack and the Beanstalk.
The wicker man itself, when revealed, is impressive and imposing, a stark violation of health and safety though no danger to animals, as it is stuffed with cuddly toys soaked in paraffin rather than real sacrifices – at least until the final scenes of the play, though quite who will end up encased within is not at all obvious.
Without doubt the slickest play on the Fringe, that praise is somewhat biased, as like Lord Summerisle it is playing from a stacked deck, masquerading under the banner of the Fringe while mounted by a professional company, but perhaps most important is that Robin Hardy himself praised the show when he saw it earlier in the run.
An Appointment with the Wicker Man continues until Sunday 26th August