Time has been spun back like an old 78 record to 1946, where it’s all fair isle slipovers, high piled hair, block heeled shoes, bow ties and braces. We’re in the RKO recording studio between 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, New York where preparations are underway for a live audience recording of the radio play It’s a Wonderful Life.
Frank Capra’s film of the same name, that is the play’s inspiration, has become the de rigeur watch during the Christmas season. The morality tale has at its centre George Bailey, brilliantly captured by an honest faced Kieran Francis Begley, an ideal 21st century version of the film’s star, Jimmy Stewart. George longs to ‘lasso the moon’ for the lovely local girl Mary Hatch (Ceri Lynn Cissone) and leave the constrains of small town life in Bedford Falls where he has taken over the Bailey Building and Loan Company from his father instead of travelling Europe. This decent man, who puts humanity before business, is forever thwarted. He manages not to dance with the devil, aka the hard- hearted businessman Mr Potter, but finally reaches the end of his rope, and ponders Potter’s vicious words that he’s worth more dead than alive. Enter his appointed angel Clarence, who’s in line to earn his celestial wings, and gives him his wish that he’d never been born. And so George Bailey, through getting his wish, learns that in spite of difficulties, it is indeed a wonderful life.
The beautifully observed ‘40s period is set with a warm up of crooners, close harmony singers and big bands of the era as the live foley desk gets set up by Kevin Jannets, involving what looks like a lot of Sellotape, and later a lot of fankled knitting. The cast, whose wonderful ‘actor’ names are sadly not credited in the programme, gathers as old pals do, shedding coats ready for work at the four big mics. The audience gets primed for this delightful play within a play, as a real live radio audience would, by a genial Ian Sommerville who manages to get in a clever and topical joke appealing to a Mrs Trump to collect a lost child found in the street otherwise ‘I guess we’re stuck with him’.
The versatile cast of six takes on the entire cast of It’s a Wonderful Life with the only the use of the odd prop of a hat or scarf to get in the mood. They have what sounds like a variety of pretty good NY accents and the silent asides between Leona McGilligan and Stewart Phillips that take place during the ‘recording’ are a pleasure to watch. Whether it’s good luck or good management, the casting of the same actors to play their polar opposites, i.e. Ian Sommerville as both Potter and Clarence and Ceri -Lyn Cissone as Mary Hatch and local good time girl Violet Bick, is a smart and subtly thought provoking one while Estrid Barton’s Ecole Jacques Lecoq training shines throughout as much as her ultra glamorous, stylish look.
It’s a Wonderful Life runs for longer on stage than the actual film does to accommodate an interval and spoof adverts heavy with product naming of the time. Despite the marathon watch, Tony Palermo’s adaptation from No Nonsense productions brings a warm hearted, gently funny, seasonal indulgence of beautifully observed nostalgia- in- a- box. This production that’s now running for a sixth consecutive year looks like it could be as much of a favourite as the original film.
15 December at 2pm and 7pm Tour continues