FringeReview UK 2020
It’s a Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play
This beloved American holiday classic comes to captivating life as a live 1940s radio broadcast.
With the help of five performers and a sound effects artist that bring a few dozen characters to the stage, the story of idealistic George Bailey unfolds one fateful Christmas Eve. It will take help from a lovable angel, Clarence, for George to have a change of heart and understand the true spirit of Christmas.
Merry Xmas Bedford Falls – HeeHaw!
It’s a Wonderful Life, has become an essential part of Christmas for many people. It is an uplifting tale of how one man can touch so many lives. The Frank Capra movie packs a powerful emotional punch that makes this film a family favourite. It’s fundamental message, that people matter more than money, strikes a powerful cord in all of us.
So, why take on such a classic?
The premise of this production is that we are watching a live recording of a 1940s radio play.
Suitably costumed, and with the old-fashioned staging, it’s easy to believe that we are in a recording studio. The FX man, James Macdonald, sits in the corner, with his boxes of sound effects. Their use is carefully choreographed and augments the telling of the story. The use of ‘Applause’ cards encourages the socially distanced audience to join in.
Because we are watching a ‘radio-play’ there is little scope for dramatic action. The actors step forward to speak into the ‘mic’ to deliver their lines. The performance relies heavily on the vocal talents of the cast.
The adaptation of the script strikes a balance between Capra’s film and this ‘new’ performance. While the writing evokes original scenes, at no point is it allowed to overpower the story. The adaptation has been cleverly and thoughtfully done.
It’s A Wonderful Life contains a more ‘political’ undertone. The evils of greed, avarice and individualism are clearly iterated, but they do not become polemic. As for the story’s positive messages of redemption, hope and friendship, these themes lead to the show’s happy ending, but without becoming lachrymose and syrupy.
What the scripting does illustrate is that, although the performances of the original film are ‘perfect’, there is more than enough in the story to carry it through.
But how do you tackle those ‘perfect’ performances?
In answer, the assembling a keen and talented cast is a good place to start, and that is what we have here.
It’s easy to forget how many characters come in and out of this story. Each one requires a different American accent and characterisation.
Many of the classic films are dialogue-driven, relying heavily on fast delivery and a complex interplay of language. The pacing of this adaptation reflects this. The cast’s timing is excellent, and they carry us along at a fair clip. The show seems to end all too soon.
The play divides into three acts, interwoven with an ‘announcement from our sponsors’. The cast perform the commercials with gusto, and appear to enjoy the change in tempo and form. These breaks are funny, upbeat, and bear a ring of authenticity in tone and content. They add to, rather than distract from, the story. It serves to remind the audience that the show is not trying to recreate the original film.
Orion Powell plays George Bailey. He doesn’t try to impersonate James Stewart, allowing Orion to make his own George. His youthful energy breathes life into George as a child. As our hero becomes older, the red face, clenched jaw and pulsing veins show us the pent up rage at a system that is inherently unfair. This is different from Stewart’s cold fury. When Clarence shows George what life would have been like in Potterville, Orion shows us his anguish. It’s a good performance.
Steve Scott plays the narrator, Mr Potter, and Uncle Billy. He conveys gravitas, humour, casual cruelty, superiority, and confusion as he does so. His linking and co-ordinating of the cast, are well-managed. He is the conductor, and his imposing presence suits the role.
Heather Alexander and Clare Bolt play the female characters. Between them, they cover an impressive range of ages and emotions. Whether its George’s mother, the young Violet or the love-struck Mary, the roles are played with confidence and conviction.
Michael Keegan’s main part is as Clarence, the Angel who is trying to get his wings. In the final act, Michael hits his stride, giving the character depth, warmth and a knowing kindness. He is there to help George find his way home and steer us toward the finale.
Not everything in the show went smoothly. There was a sound issue, a few fluffed lines, and the use of microphones would give a greater impact to the dialogue. But these are minor points, in what was a very enjoyable performance.
This is a show worth seeing. To tackle a classic and do it this well marks out this performance. The actors are believable, well-choreographed, and helped along by excellent sound effects and good direction. The story’s key themes come through, and the characters are well-drawn. References to the original film never overwhelm, we always understand this is something different. The feel-good ending tugs gently on the heart-strings and shows us the value of friends, family and love.
In a year of adversity, entering a cold winter, this show will pick you up and remind you that there is much to enjoy and be thankful for. It strikes a positive note in dark days. It is A Wonderful Life. Hee-Haw!