I just knew I'd need a tissue with me when I went to see 'It's a Wonderful Life' at Beverley's East Riding Theatre (ERT) because a feel-good story always brings a tear of joy to my eyes. I wasn't disappointed - the tissue came in handy! But along with that tear of joy was a heart full of pride that our own small, independent theatre could present such a professional, magical performance. But why has ERT chosen to present this when its previous 3 years' Christmas plays have all been such well-received Dickens novels? Well, there is a link!
The play, 'It's a Wonderful Life' is based on a short story 'The Greatest Gift' by Philip Van Doren Stern; he wrote it in 1939 after having a dream based on Dicken's 'A Christmas Carol'. The story is referred to in the play. Famous director Frank Capra eventually bought the rights to and made the film of the story in 1946, changing its name in the process. Popular actor James Stewart played the lead role, George Bailey, but, although it was nominated for 5 Oscars, it won none and performed so badly in the cinemas that its copyright was allowed to run out. Which is why television picked it up - a Frank Capra film which could be screened for free was a gift! And that's why many people going to see 'It's a Wonderful Life' at ERT will have seen the film and will know the story inside out and backwards and have such high expectations. Like me, their expectations will be surpassed.
The adaptation used is by Mary Elliott Nelson. Director Jake Smith's and designer Ed Ullyart's practical and creative reimagining uses every inch of the small stage and more, using a trap-door, creating an upper mezzanine level which becomes a bridge and by moving the action out into the aisles. In fact, the audience become part of the play as soon as they enter the auditorium - Mr. J and I were lucky enough to be shown to our seats by Mr Welch (played by Neil King) himself! This perhaps reminds us that the play is about the ups and downs of normal life - how everyone goes through life making small contributions which can make a difference and which can mean more than you ever realise.
The acting is nothing less than first class. The play is set in America so the cast adopt 'soft' American accents, 6 of the actors taking on more than one role. All credit to Beverley-based Richard Avery who plays Uncle Billy and then, with the addition of a hat and the appropriate accent, becomes the Italian Mr Martini, and to ERT regular Clive Kneller who plays the troubled pharmacist Gower as well as the nasty Mr Potter. There are also 2 teams of 3 young actors who take it in turn to play 'young' versions of the characters and the children. But the stars of the show are Andrew Joshi as George who, due to circumstances beyond his control, is swindled out of $8,000 and sees no way of remedying the situation but to commit suicide by jumping from the aforementioned bridge and Harriet Benson, George's Guardian Angel, Clarence, who saves him by showing him all the good he has done in his life. Yes, the angel is played by a woman - and why not? Who says Clarence has to be a man!
There is a familiar line in this show which many will recognise - 'Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings'. This Angel is a rookie who has been waiting for his/her wings for 200 years. Will she get them after working with George? Will George manage to raise the $8000 to prevent him going into bankruptcy? You will have to go to see this production to find out, but this may be where you need that tissue! There is a lot of goodwill around and it's all headed towards George!
Understandably, tickets are selling very well - many performances well into January already have limited availability. The matinee I went to was completely sold out! You only have until January 6th to see it so do get your skates on and get your tickets booked. This is the perfect feel-good play for this time of year when we all love a little schmaltz!