Writer: Tony Palermo (from the Frank Capra film)
Director: Guy Retallack
Designer: Fiona Martin
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
It’s a Wonderful Life, coming to the Lawrence Batley Theatre at the end of a highly successful two-month tour, re-imagines the iconic 1946 Frank Capra film in the form of a 1949 radio broadcast. Radio veteran Tony Palermo’s version is based on the script used by the Lux Radio Theatre in Hollywood and has been widely performed in the United States, but the Bridge House Theatre production sets it in a British radio station. The introductions and commercial breaks played out in British accents add to the multiplicity of different voices and American accents employed by the disciplined and versatile cast.
The staging is very simple and natural. The set consists of a monster logo for IBC (is that Imperial Broadcasting Company?), a table for the Foley effects, some large microphones and six chairs for the cast – for the 50 or so characters of the film are to be played by just six actors. David Benson, as the presenter, and his assistant/effects woman potter around a bit, check the equipment and watch the time before he delivers an amusing, in-period introduction to the radio drama about to unfold.
The story of It’s a Wonderful Life is somewhat shortened from the film and divided into three parts, the first two ending on rather artificial cliff-hangers: a bit of gentle parody of the methods of radio drama add to the fun. Guy Retallack’s production initially seems unambitious and rather static: actors come forward to the microphones and do their bit, script in hand, but imperceptibly the visual impact grows and, even when an actor has a conversation with himself, switching hats and stage position, we can believe in his characters.
The first two episodes before the interval take the form of the briefing of Angel Clarence Oddbody who, to gain his wings, must save George Bailey from suicide. The briefing takes the form of a sequence of events from George’s life, revealing his goodness, his unselfishness, his frustrated ambitions, his value to the community, as well as his occasional indecisiveness or outbreak of temper. The final episode is darker before ending in an explosion of kindness and happiness – sentimental, yes, but finally very moving and beautifully handled.
Oliver Stoney is a seriously convincing George Bailey, determined to do right, but never priggish, and sensibly does not attempt a James Stewart impersonation. The remaining five actors create a perfectly balanced ensemble, flexible and alert and wonderfully convincing as a crowd.
David Benson is outstanding, his poised presenter turning into Potter, the villainous plutocrat, George’s upright father, Martini the expansive Italian bar-owner and many others. Benjamin Chamberlain is another who turns on a sixpence, his speciality being young men, but he is capable of suggesting age instantly by a droop of the mouth. Lynsey Beauchamp, an authoritative Superintendant Angel, ranges similarly over age and class and Richard Albrecht, a lovable, eager and bumbling Clarence, even more confused as Uncle Billy. Augustina Seymour has all the pertly intelligent devotion of George’s wife Mary, cares and worries shadowing the carefree optimism of her 18-year-old self – when she and Stoney break into their little dance to Buffalo Girls, it’s clear this is no ordinary radio broadcast.
Touring Nationally| Image: Contributed