It’s A Wonderful Life – Review

Gerard McCarthy & Sophie Scott in It's A Wonderful Life. Photos  Anton Hewins.
Gerard McCarthy & Sophie Scott in It’s A Wonderful Life. Photos Anton Hewins.

The Muppets Christmas Carol and Jingle All The Way aside, I’m pretty ‘bah, humbug’ about most Christmas films.

Mocking my mother for her love of Love Actually has actually become more of a tradition than watching such saccharine nonsense.

So in my 28 Christmases on earth, I’ve never got round to watching Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s A Wonderful Life – and I missed it again on Saturday’s TV as I was at London’s newest fringe venue watching the drama on stage.

I was probably the only person in the audience at the Bridge House Theatre SE20, Penge, who could claim such a thing – I’m told it’s as much of a holiday staple as mince pies, White Christmas and Grandma drinking too much sherry.

George Bailey (Gerard McCarthy) is a young man shooting for the moon.

He plans to travel the world, get a college education, and build a great many wonderful things, but he selflessly puts his hopes and dreams to one side when his father dies, in order to save the family business.

The constant self-sacrifice could have been a bit cloying, but McCarthy never plays George as a martyr. There’s enough resentment there for you to really root for, not pity, the character.

As the years go by and disaster after disaster strikes, George finds himself on Christmas Eve facing arrest over missing money from the company funds.

He heads to the Bedford Falls toll bridge, convinced his life insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive.

Ho ho ho. My preconceived views on cheesy festive productions are taking a hit.

Meanwhile, up in Heaven, apprentice angel Clarence is cramming background information on George’s life from his glamorous boss angel (Gillian Kirkpatrick).

He’s got the duel aims of stopping our hero from making the jump, while also earning his angel’s wings.

I was never entirely convinced Clarence cared as much about the former as the latter, but Kenneth Jay in bowtie and specs makes a kindly and comic guardian.

Clarence shows George a world where George Bailey never existed and it’s really pretty bleak.

Like Scrooge at the hands of his three ghosts, or Eddie the handyman in the more contemporary The Five People You Meet In Heaven, It’s only when he sees what might have been, that he realises how one man – however insignificant he sees his actions to be – can touch the lives of so many others.

It's A Wonderful Life.

It’s life-affirming stuff, and the tears running down George’s face say it all.

Director Guy Retallack stages the production as a radio play – all the actors are on stage at the same time, taking turns on the mics.

It’s a useful adaptation in such a tiny venue and those sitting out do well to maintain character even though they’re not the ones we’re supposed to be watching.

The face of Sophie Scott as George’s wife Mary, in particular, does a beautiful job expressing love and concern from her seat.

Danny Colligan, who makes his West End debut next year, is definitely one to watch – his quickfire changes of character, from bank inspector to taxi driver to wise guy bartender, are a delight.

What doesn’t work so well at the 60-seat Bridge House, is the volume. The sound levels were a little too high for the size of auditorium.

The little girl in front of me had her fingers in her ears whenever McCarthy or Scott raised their voices.

It’s not the actors’ fault of course – this production could easily have filled a much bigger theatre.

Having said that, it was nice to see so many kids in the audience at what was a much more intelligent and relatively budget-friendly alternative to a panto (I’m pretty bah humbag about them too).

Clarence’s trip through an alternate world without George in it, and George’s ultimate realisation that he’s much more valued by his family and friends than he ever imagined, is a little rushed.

That was meant to be the heart-warming Christmassy bit. Too much of the play was given over to the earlier scenes of George’s seemingly mundane existence.

But a delightfully, unashamedly, cheesy sing-along at the end more than makes up for it, and there was plenty of hand squeezing, smiles and cheek-kissing among couples and families in the audience as we made our way out.

It’s A Wonderful Life runs until January 4.

Merry Christmas.

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