Writer: Mary Elliott Nelson
Director: Jake Smith
Designer: Ed Ullyart
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
East Riding Theatre’s ambition and achievement continue to surprise and impress. A converted church with fewer than 200 capacity and a small stage with no wing space, reliant for its operations on an army of volunteers to supplement the small professional team, it continues to mount productions that seldom take the easy way out and are as popular as they are dramatically satisfying.
So it is with It’s a Wonderful Life, Mary Elliott Nelson’s adaptation (originally staged at Farnham Maltings) of the classic Frank Capra film. Bringing the town of Bedford Falls to life on such a small stage is no easy task, but director Jake Smith manages it thanks to an energetically versatile cast of eight (plus three admirable youngsters), Ed Ullyart’s astute and imaginative designs and a willingness to use the auditorium space when needed. The bridge from which George Bailey is tempted to throw himself dominates the stage, with Bedford Falls prettily illuminated in miniature or replaced by carry-on furniture. Special effects, such as the arrival of the Angel, work pretty well; Simon Bedwell’s lighting and David Barton’s music are smartly and dramatically integrated into the action.
The play stays close to the story of the original film, though without some of the explanation. George Bailey is in charge of a small family-run building society in upstate New York. Throughout his life, he has given up his hopes of travel, college, etc., because of the demands of the family firm. Now, on Christmas Eve 1945, thanks to the forgetfulness of his Uncle Billy, he finds the firm is having to close and all its policy-holders will fall into the grasp of Bedford Falls’ resident evil capitalist, Mr Potter. Deciding it would have been better all round if he had never been born, he turns to thoughts of suicide.
In the play, as in the film, George Bailey is reconciled to himself when an angel shows him how much good he has done in his life, from saving his eight-year-old brother from drowning onwards. The difference is that, instead of Henry Travers’ gently confused Clarence Odbody, the Angel is female, apparently much younger, rather puzzled, something of a flapper, and usually there, buzzing on the fringes of the action in her aviator suit.
Excellent as an ensemble, the actors are rather less successful in establishing vivid individual characters; possibly the characters have always been under-developed, Capra knowing that his cast was stuffed with actors who could suggest a life history with one look at the camera. Clive Kneller makes the strongest impact as Potter, sadistically enjoying his snarling control of the town, and doubling effectively as the violently troubled pharmacist Gower. Richard Avery’s Uncle Billy bumbles good-heartedly, but Eliza Hewitt-Jones has little to work with as George’s girlfriend/wife.
Andrew Joshi presents the issues cleanly and effectively as George without hinting at James Stewart’s easy charm – after all, who could? Then Uncle Billy messes up, nice George Bailey becomes bitter, aggressive and ultimately self-accusing, and Joshi’s performance begins to hit the mark powerfully. Scene after scene bursts with urgency, notably those with the Angel, Harriet Benson now probing, now confronting him. The sentimental finale, full of shouts of “Merry Christmas!”, has ultimately been hard won.
Runs until 6 January 2018 | Image: Gavin Prest Photography