It’s a Wonderful Life – Review – East Riding Theatre, Beverley
By Karl Hornsey, December 2017
There are two Christmas stories in particular that I have a soft spot for – A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life – and the anticipation in seeing either of these performed is always tempered with the hope that they’ll continue to live up to expectations.
Well, I’m delighted to say, director Jake Smith’s production of the latter at the ERT in Beverley managed to go way beyond what I could have hoped for, adding to the already impressive canon of outstanding Christmas shows to have been staged there since its opening in 2014.
It’s a Wonderful Life has developed into a festive favourite in recent years, but Frank Capra’s 1946 film wasn’t the roaring success the studios were hoping for, which is hard to believe given the high regard for the film, and more importantly its message, in this day and age.
“A new level”
This adaptation by Mary Elliott Nelson strikes the perfect balance between using what works in the film, but not being afraid to make innovative alterations to freshen it up, as well as ensuring that a story that covers more than 20 years in the life of the lead character George Bailey is able to be told in just two hours. This is still the IAWL so familiar to fans of the original, but elevated to a new level that even the film somehow cannot reach.
The set is beautifully designed to recreate Bedford Falls and the use of the whole theatre, with characters entering and exiting up and down the aisles, as well as the all-important bridge from which we first see George considering whether his life is worth living, help to give the production a wide enough scope to work, escaping the confines of the small stage.
However, none of this would work without the central role of Bailey holding the story together, and again, the audience are in safe hands, as Andrew Joshi makes the role his own, choosing not to in any way imitate or mimic James Stewart. Instead Joshi brings a huge emotional depth to the part, in many ways making George a more rounded human being, with his demons on show or bubbling under, ready to explode as his frustrations of never quite being able to leave Bedford Falls build to a climax.
While I would never criticise Stewart – one of my favourite actors – there is something about Joshi’s physically and emotionally animated performance that is truly spellbinding. Not to mention him nailing the accent perfectly.
Joshi is ably supported by a wonderful cast of all ages, with the only major change from the film being that of the angel sent to watch over George changing gender, which takes some getting used to for a die-hard traditionalist such as myself, but which proves a winner, especially as the role expands in the second half as George’s life spirals out of control.
If I have one quibble, then it would only be a larger role for Mr Potter, one of the most evil, detestable villains ever created, would have been the icing on the cake, but maybe spanning out George’s spiral into despair would be hard to take for the audience at Christmas
Instead, we’re left with the warm glow that should come from such a powerful story as It’s a Wonderful Life, and I would recommend it to anyone, of any age. Which is quite a relief for a fan such as I.