CHRIS ARNOT Review on behalf of www.elementrywhatson.co.uk
The American Dream of moving from Main Street to Manhattan is alive and well in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Small-town obscurity to being a big-city big shot – that’s the dream of George Bailey, a decent man whose dreams turn to nightmares as bankruptcy looms.
Not that I need to tell the majority of readers that. Most of us have seen the original film on the telly during one Christmas or another.
It was made in 1946, and that’s when Joe Landry’s theatrical take on the story is imagined. Not on a film set but in a radio studio – the WBFR “playhouse of the airways”, to be precise.
This is New York City recreating small-town America on Christmas Eve. And it’s going out live. Nothing can be recorded, edited and replayed. Everything has to be bang on first time. No room for error.
The Criterion cast rose to the challenge in a gaffe-free first-night. There must have been many a fraught rehearsal but, under Richard Warren’s meticulous direction, the timing was impeccable throughout.
Take a bow Leonie Slater and Ted McGowan. It’s not often that a reviewer mentions the sound operators first. But with live radio they’d be a key element of the output and, with live theatre, they’re up there on stage throughout, tinkling glasses, swilling water, slamming doors and much more besides.
Not forgetting that they have to join in singing the adverts with the rest of the cast during “commercial breaks”. What do you think this is: Radio 4?
Even on American radio, it would seem, you dressed for the part in those distant days. Seamed stockings for one of the ladies; dinner jackets and bow ties were considered de rigueur for two of the gents. Not forgetting an extraordinary silver emblazoned jacket for Henry F Potter, the dastardly businessman who drives George Bailey to the brink of suicide.
Potter’s played with a menacing side-of-the-mouth drawl by Jamie Firth who, like the rest of the cast, takes on more than one role.
Debra Relton-Elves plays a seductive siren one minute and a little girl the next – believably in both cases.
And Chris Firth is wholly believable as Bailey, a fundamentally decent man who hasn’t realised his effect on those around him. Until, that is, Hugh Sorrill’s guardian angel drops in to show him what life in his community would have been like had he never been born.
A wonderful life?
Far from it. But this is a wonderful production of a comparatively new take on an old film.
NICK LE MESURIER review
What does it mean to be a truly good man? This is the question that It’s a Wonderful Life asks. George Bailey is such a man, one who always thinks of others before himself. Time and again he sacrifices his own advantage for that of his fellow townsmen and women. Yet it is others who save him when he is incapable of saving himself.
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the great feel good movies of all time. Unashamedly sentimental, it does a very difficult thing in dramatic terms; it makes a wholly good character seem interesting.
The film was first shown in 1946 to no great success and immediately condemned by the FBI as communist propaganda. Why? Because it criticises the greed of those with money and because its hero George Bailey believes that promoting the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged is a greater moral good than the pursuit of private profit. The story is set on Christmas Eve, an irony that its critics seem to have been incapable of seeing. It’s revolutionary even now.
The film has gone on to be one of the best loved in movie history. So how does It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, by Joe Landry, fare against original?
Very well indeed if this production is anything to go by. We see a ‘live’ radio broadcast of the story, five actors and two Sound Operators managing to deliver from a studio dozens of parts and sound effects in one seamless whole.
Watching actors read their lines might not seem the most edifying of spectacles, but here the actors get right into their parts, their vocal dexterity simply amazing, along with just enough physical action to draw you right into the characters and the scenes. It’s a remarkable task, requiring perfectly pitched performances. Too much, or too little ‘acting’ would have ruined it.
The story follows that of the film pretty closely. George Bailey, originally played by James Stewart and here recreated to perfection by Chris Firth, is the good man at the centre of the tale. But he has been beaten down by bad luck and the exhaustion of caring for the townsfolk. He would literally give away the clothes on his back if it would do someone some good, but when the story starts he is about to commit suicide, having lost $8000 to Henry Potter (Jamie Firth), the villain of the piece, who wants to buy up the company and control the town. He’s at his lowest ebb when Clarence, his guardian angel rescues him by showing him what life in his home town would have been like had he not lived and done all he has.
I won’t say more about the story, as you probably know it. When it was first broadcast the film touched a need for solace after the horrors of the second world war. And it has continued to do so ever since.
There’s a place for goodness in all our hearts, and this wonderful, dextrous, devoted and thoroughly professional production shows that to be eternally true. If proof were needed, I believe there are only a handful of tickets left to be had.