Review: A bold take on a heartwarming classic on Coventry stage

'Five actors and two sound operators managing to deliver from a studio dozens of parts and sound effects in one seamless whole'
'Five actors and two sound operators managing to deliver from a studio dozens of parts and sound effects in one seamless whole'

Nick Le Mesurier reviews It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

What does it mean to be a truly good man? This is the question that It’s a Wonderful Life asks.

George Bailey is such a man, one who always thinks of others before himself. Time and again he sacrifices his own advantage for that of his fellow townsmen and women. Yet it is others who save him when he is incapable of saving himself.

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the great feel-good movies of all time. Unashamedly sentimental, it does a very difficult thing in dramatic terms: it makes a wholly good character seem interesting.

The film was first shown in 1946 to no great success and immediately condemned by the FBI as communist propaganda. Why? Because it criticises the greed of those with money and because its hero George Bailey believes that promoting the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged is a greater moral good than the pursuit of private profit. The story is set on Christmas Eve, an irony that its critics seem to have been incapable of seeing. It’s revolutionary even now.

The film has gone on to be one of the best loved in movie history. So how does It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, by Joe Landry, fare against the original?

Very well indeed if this production is anything to go by. We see a ‘live’ radio broadcast of the story, five actors and two sound operators managing to deliver from a studio dozens of parts and sound effects in one seamless whole.

Watching actors read their lines might not seem the most edifying of spectacles, but here the actors get right into their parts, their vocal dexterity simply amazing, along with just enough physical action to draw you right into the characters and the scenes. It’s a remarkable task, requiring perfectly pitched performances. Too much, or too little ‘acting’ would have ruined it.

The story follows that of the film pretty closely. George Bailey, originally played by James Stewart and here recreated to perfection by Chris Firth, is the good man at the centre of the tale. But he has been beaten down by bad luck and the exhaustion of caring for the townsfolk. He would literally give away the clothes on his back if it would do someone some good, but when the story starts he is about to kill himself, having lost $8,000 to Henry Potter (Jamie Firth), the villain of the piece, who wants to buy up the company and control the town. He’s at his lowest ebb when Clarence, his guardian angel, rescues him by showing him what life in his home town would have been like had he not lived and done all he has.

I won’t say more about the story, as you probably know it. When it was first broadcast the film touched a need for solace after the horrors of the Second World War. And it has continued to do so ever since.

There’s a place for goodness in all our hearts, and this wonderful, dextrous, devoted and thoroughly professional production shows that to be eternally true. If proof were needed, I believe there are only a handful of tickets left to be had.

* The show runs until Saturday December 7. Visit criteriontheatre.co.uk to book.