Nov 18 2011 By Barry Dix
CAN there be anybody in the country who hasn’t seen that heart-warming old 1940s film It’s A Wonderful Life?
Though it was a flop at the box office on its release, it’s gained cult status in recent years, becoming as much a part of the Christmas TV viewing schedules as the Queen’s festive message, Raymond Briggs’ Snowman or yet another showing of a Morecambe and Wise special.
Wholesome and homely, it portrays American smalltown life in the post war period with a seasonal message every bit as strong as Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
In fact, with subject matter including housing problems, financial worries and shady bankers, it also tackles many of the major issues facing us in the modern day.
But how would that transfer to the stage, in the form of a musical?
The audience at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, already wallowing in the seasonal spirit induced by the performances of The Nutcracker ballet, has a chance to find out this week.
Bruce James Productions, who have built up an impressive catalogue of stage hits, particularly musicals, since being formed in 1995, are taking the show on tour in the run-up to Christmas.
Their version, the work of one Thomas M Sharkey, is not the first musical production of It’s A Wonderful Life as there have apparently been several attempts in the past, with varying degrees of success.
So familiar is the tale in its black and white film version, with James Stewart in the role of George Bailey, that it takes a while to get accustomed to seeing the story come to life in song and dance.
It is, however, an advantage to know the plot as some of the lyrics are difficult to discern, due in no small part to the cast’s unenviable task of having to sing and talk in accents of upstate New York.
As in the Frank Capra film, the action is set in Bedford Falls a small, working class town where George, anxious to get away from the oppressive atmosphere, dreams of travelling the world. But his kindly, charitable, benevolent nature – he’d be a perfect candidate for the Big Society – means his destiny lies within the confines of Bedford Falls while others go off and make their fortunes and do heroic deeds.
The songs are pleasant enough and performed with spirit, though only a couple really stand out. However, one was still running through my head the next day – a true indicator of a memorable number.
Stephen McGlynn makes a fine George, easily handling the transition from college student to family man and displaying all the humility and pathos needed for the role.
Kirsty Malpass as Mary Hatch Bailey has an outstanding voice and gets the most out of her numbers, including one beautifully-performed solo. Likewise, Meshell Dillon makes an excellent Violet Bick.
I particularly enjoyed the performances of Martin Johnson as the unpleasant, scheming Henry Potter, and his assistant Ross Mullan – known to CBeebies viewers as the evil Numbertaker in Numberjack – who break into an amusing song and dance routine at an unexpected moment.
The rest of the cast, including Andrea Miller as George’s mother, Tom Murphy as Uncle Billy and Johnathan Tweedie as Harry, are in fine form, while Hayley Canham as Zuzu, the Baileys’ daughter, is confident and poised.
I was particularly struck by the performance of Morgan Deare as Clarence Oddbody, George’s guardian angel, a wonderfully entertaining portrayal, and it is he who holds the action together. There’s some excellent live accompaniment too, which isn’t always the case these days.
A couple of small gripes – the two acts are of such unequal length that, after a lengthy first half, the audience is only back from the bar for about 30 minutes before the final scene begins to unravel.
It makes the tear-jerking return of George to the bosom of his family far too hurried and a little devoid of emotion. But this is still a hugely-enjoyable pre-Christmas treat which, like the evergreen film, is perfect family entertainment and one whose underlying message is still relevant today.
* It’s A Wonderful Life, is at The Theatre Royal, Windsor until Saturday (November 19). Contact the box office on 01753 853888 orwww.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk