Review: It’s a Wonderful Life! at Thornton Little Theatre

A review by David Riley

It’s a Wonderful Life! is a classic film from mid 1940’s America that has become a staple of Christmas television in many parts of the world and is now recognized as one of the greats of US film making. It was directed by Frank Capra and starred (as its lead character George Bailey) James Stewart. When it had already achieved this iconic status as a film, the script was adapted for the stage by Los Angeles playwright and performer Tony Palermo, who gave it a brilliant twist – it was to be staged as a live radio broadcast set in the 1940’s. This stage version in the United States is already on its way to being a classic, getting an airing in many places near to the holiday season.

This form of adaptation means several things. Firstly it can all be done on one set, the floor of a period radio studio. In this production this was well recreated with appropriate furnishings, lighting and fashions. This also leads to audience involvement with a short “pre-show” segment before going “on air” where the audience were instructed in the right time – and right way – to applaud to come over well on radio. Related to these points is the third. The audience is at a production where sound effects are integral and they ranged widely including feet on gravel and snow, opening and closing doors, a squeaky wheelchair and a talkative and wing flapping parrot brought to life with the voice of sound effects actor, Laura Thompson and a broken umbrella. These are a highlight of the show, giving the audience, who can see everything, the appearance of a behind the scenes look into period special effects. The co-ordination of these with other actors’ movements and speech is no mean feat and accomplished well.

The plot of It’s a Wonderful Life! is one that for long periods escapes seasonal or other sentimentality while drawing on the traditions of Tom Sawyer and Dickens’s Christmas stories. George Bailey, very ably played by James Douglas, has to give up his dreams at regular intervals for others and is driven to despair and near suicide. Enter Clarence, angel (2nd Class), whose job it is to try and save him.

The adaptation is faithful to the original dialogue where it can be while the radio format allows actors, who may not look much like their cinema originals, to take parts. This holds with Douglas, who is an older actor playing the role of Bailey as a comparatively young man – and, early on, a woman to play his part as a boy.

There can only be minor quibbles and questions with an excellent show. Firstly, this was a show in a show – It’s a Wonderful Life! presented as a radio broadcast. I did wonder if it might have been possible for the actors to take on the roles  of the radio presenters a little more and show the relationships between these as well as performing the radio drama. This is a highly ambitious idea and may well be impossible and did not detract from the staging.

I also wondered a little about Mr Douglas’s portrayal, where he did a very good imitation of James Stewart’s accent and verbal mannerisms. If this had been approached differently, might there have been another interpretation of the show available? This again is difficult; the story is so closely bound up with Stewart’s performance it may not work without this approach.

A final very small point. The end included the use of a rather noisy snow machine for a rather unnecessary special effect – after so many good ones.

Clear diction throughout, the use of an extremely full cast and crew of 53 named individuals (mostly, these days, numbers just available to dedicated amateur groups) is another good reason to catch this show and support local drama where you can. If you don’t make this production, Poulton Drama are in action again with a play set in north-west England, And Did Those Feet, in March.

It’s A Wonderful Life! runs at Thornton Little Theatre until Saturday 24th November 2012.


David Riley is a playwright and former winner of the Grand Words competition for plays from north west England.

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