Pros: A very clever and thoughtful take on a classic story, with delightful nods to the venue’s location and a strong cast.
Cons: The odd wandering accent, if we’re being picky.
Christmas is the most magical time of the year, filled with good cheer to all men and a pervasive feeling of public spiritedness; it is also a fiercely competitive few weeks in theatreland, with every company and venue trying to draw you in with their seasonal offerings. In the case of the Bridge House Theatre in Penge, we have an absolute classic: It’s a Wonderful Life. What better way to mark the official opening of this new 60-seat theatre venue?
This story might be a classic, but there is a twist: it is not a straightforward play we are treated to. Instead, we watch as six players gather together in 1949 to record a radio play version. Watch a radio play? Yes, and not only does it remain engaging and visually entertaining, but it’s also a very clever way to deal with the limited room for sets in this venueabove a pub. In fact, the whole production is filled with clever and thoughtful little touches, not least the inclusion of fifties-style advertising interludes for Penge’s local shops and cafes, a feature that had the audience in stitches, particularly the trio of local ladies in front of me who were all but falling off their chairs with laughter.
For anyone that has managed to make their way through life without seeing It’s a Wonderful Life, I’ll provide a brief synopsis. We begin in heaven with Clarence Odbody (Kenneth Jay), a wingless angel, second class. On a mission to earn his wings, he is tasked with saving the life of George Bailey, who, on Christmas Eve, stands on a bridge contemplating suicide. The rather sultry, husky voiced Superintendent Angel (Gillian Kirkpatrick) takes Clarence through the life of George Bailey to date: his wish to leave Bedford Falls, the war, his family, his successes and failures. Armed with this knowledge, Clarence descends to Earth to show George just what a positive impact he has made on his friends, family and community.
With little in the way of set or technical trickery to hide behind, this production relies heavily on the abilities of its cast, and it has a cracking, enthused and energised one. Gerard McCarthy does an excellent job with George, giving him enough humanity and range to ensure he is entirely believable and allowing him to deftly dodge the danger of making the character too saccharine and martyr-like. The rest of the cast flow between multiple characters with great skill, using finely tuned physicalities, the odd signature prop and a range of different accents (these sometimes wandering a little before settling) to great effect.
Another character of note is Susan Burns, the stage manager both in real life and in the play. Sitting at her control booth, she ensures the smooth technical running of the piece from sound effects to lighting. She also holds an old fashioned audience applause prompt sign, in the spirit of classic live recordings, but this was almost obsolete in that the audience needed no prompting – they were having such a good time the applause flowed completely naturally and freely.
It’s a Wonderful Life provides everything you want from a festive production: there are laughs, the odd tear, some Christmas music and a lot of good cheer.
Author: Tony Palermo
Director: Guy Retallack
Box Office: 020 8133 0311
Booking Link: http://bhtheatre.com/whatson/index.php?post_id=6&title=its-a-wonderful-life
Booking Until: 4 January 2015