Sussex Playwrights reviews: It’s A Wonderful Life

It’s A Wonderful Life
Unmasked Theatre
Adapted and directed by Pip O’Neill and Luke Ofield

It’s Christmas in Bedford Falls, a perhaps mythical small town in 40s America. We know this one – George is set to throw himself off a bridge, wishing he’d never been born, until trainee angel Clarence intervenes to show him what would have happened if he’d never existed.

It’s A Wonderful Life is consistently rated the world’s most popular Christmas film, and now prolific young company Unmasked Theatre have newly adapted the original novella for the Brighton Rialto stage, with musical interludes and a sixteen-strong cast.

The clever addition of a sturdy balcony playing Heaven, the bridge and upstairs windows gives the Rialto a welcome extra level, adding new dimension to its small stage space.

Jimmy Stewart’s a giant act to follow, and Liam Murray Scott makes a great impact as a charming, physically deft and emotionally intelligent George. Seerché Dindial as Mary the ideal girl next door radiates sweet goodness and Elizabeth McNally is a sour, dour and ultimately villainous Miss Potter. Robert Cohen impresses as fading Uncle Billy, a mind subtly failing as the booze takes its toll, and Tyrone Purling’s Clarence adds that essential Stan Laurel innocence. An energetic supporting cast doubles and colours in the many characters inhabiting Bedford Falls.

The show’s long; some scenes feel extra, and the time taken to move the few pieces of furniture and the many members of cast and singers about between scenes stretches the running time to well over two hours. It would benefit from a little trimming and tightening, both in script and execution.

It’s a huge story, and we’re swept along through several decades of George’s honest good-guy existence. As fate begins to work against him we’re with him all the way. Of course Clarence’s lesson takes him and us into the depths, only to be raised to the right and proper conclusion, and at the end, when the little bell rang … they got me. Dammit, they got me.

Rialto Theatre, Brighton
December 16, 18, 22, 23

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Philippa Hammond