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Criterion Theatre, review: It's a Wonderful Life

Small-town obscurity to being a big-city big shot – that’s the dream of George Bailey, a decent man whose dreams turn to nightmares as bankruptcy looms.

Not that I need to tell the majority of readers that. Most of us have seen the original film on the telly during one Christmas or another.

It was made in 1946, and that’s when Joe Landry’s theatrical take on the story is imagined. Not on a film set but in a radio studio – the WBFR “playhouse of the airways”, to be precise.

This is New York City recreating small-town America on Christmas Eve. And it’s going out live. Nothing can be recorded, edited and replayed. Everything has to be bang on first time. No room for error.

The Criterion cast rose to the challenge in a gaffe-free first-night. There must have been many a fraught rehearsal but, under Richard Warren’s meticulous direction, the timing was impeccable throughout.

Take a bow Leonie Slater and Ted McGowan. It’s not often that a reviewer mentions the sound operators first. But with live radio they’d be a key element of the output and, with live theatre, they’re up there on stage throughout, tinkling glasses, swilling water, slamming doors and much more besides.

Not forgetting that they have to join in singing the adverts with the rest of the cast during “commercial breaks”. What do you think this is: Radio 4?

Even on American radio, it would seem, you dressed for the part in those distant days. Seamed stockings for one of the ladies; dinner jackets and bow ties were considered de rigueur for two of the gents. Not forgetting an extraordinary silver emblazoned jacket for Henry F Potter, the dastardly businessman who drives George Bailey to the brink of suicide.

Potter’s played with a menacing side-of-the-mouth drawl by Jamie Firth who, like the rest of the cast, takes on more than one role.

Debra Relton-Elves plays a seductive siren one minute and a little girl the next – believably in both cases.

And Chris Firth is wholly believable as Bailey, a fundamentally decent man who hasn’t realised his effect on those around him. Until, that is, Hugh Sorrill’s guardian angel drops in to show him what life in his community would have been like had he never been born.

A wonderful life?

Far from it. But this is a wonderful production of a comparatively new take on an old film.

Pictured: Helen McGowan and Chris Firth

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