It’s a Wonderful Life

Bridge House Theatre, Penge,

In south east London, a little miracle is burgeoning. London’s latest pub theatre, Penge’s Bridge House Theatre, has been taken over and re-launched by director Guy Retallack and his wife, actor Rachel Tucker.

For their first in-house offering, they’ve come up with a staged radio version of Frank Capra’s all-time Christmas favourite It’s a Wonderful Life. Even if you know the story back to front, this adaptation re-told as a live broadcast is as a heart-warming as it is tasty.

Shortened radio versions of Hollywood films such as It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz were apparently all the rage in the late 1940s and ‘50s. CliMar Producer Rob Harris saw a modern production whilst living in Toronto and was determined, back once more in the UK, to follow suit.

His instinct proves spot on. This is a perfect seasonal pick-me-up. Capra’s story could have been made for the tiny upstairs pub room in which Retallack’s terrific cast, in front of two mics, transform themselves with wit and warmth into a whole community plus angels.

Capra’s story was an unashamed, even sentimental paean to US small town values.
His central character – modest George Bailey, eager to see the world and `do big things’ but trapped in Bedford Falls by family circumstances – is played here by Gerard McCarthy following in the intimidating footsteps of James Stewart. McCarthy though makes George completely his own exuding upright, moral decency which still doesn’t stop George, facing bankruptcy and prison, deciding to end his life.

Told from the point of view of a heavenly superior and `Second Class’ angel, Clarence trying to earn his `wings’ by stopping George’s suicide, Tony Palermo’s slimmed down version shows, with fewer examples than the film, but as effectively, Clarence convincing George just how useful his life has been to those around him.

It may sound corny with Scrooge like echoes of conversion thrown in. But It’s a Wonderful Life is as American as apple pie. The wonder is it’s being served up with such British dash and brilliance as to make it so utterly irresistible.

The new regime is off to a flying start.

First published in Reviewsgate in Dec 2014