Theatre in Wales

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Cheer and a Tear for End of Year

It's a Wonderful Life

Lighthouse Theatre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , December 15, 2019
It's a Wonderful Life by Lighthouse Theatre Little Lighthouse from Mumbles has been quietly up and down Wales this last month, 16 venues from Pwllheli to the Riverside. Director Joe Harmston has fashioned a finely detailed and richly aural production from Joe Landry's adaptation of Frank Capra's ultimate Christmas film. Landry has remoulded the script in form; it is now a live broadcast from the vintage days of radio.

The setting for the production, in association with Pontardawe Arts Centre and Tŷ Cerdd, is a sound stage in a Manhattan radio station. The date is Christmas Eve 1947, the six actors for WBFR's Playhouse of the Air in stripey sleeveless pullovers and flower-patterned dresses. Kieran Bailey sits at a keyboard and a table filled with a variety of objects of strangeness. Sean Cavanagh's design is topped by illuminated signs that indicate the times for audience applause and reaction. At the opening, cast member Harry Heywood (Adrian Metcalfe) tells us we are part of the action for the fictional coast-to-coast radio audience. The Aberystwyth audience responds with an enthusiastic playing of its role.

The voices have an overlapping and busy harmony to them. The action is broken by advertisements for the sponsors, makers of soap and hair tonic. Melangell Dolma, Joanna Lucas and Sonia Beck chirrup together in chorus for the commercials.

The actors play a medley of roles, James Ifan's Freddie Filmore displaying a tonal versatility as he moves from celestial to earthly spheres and back again. Daniel Llewelyn-Williams' George twists his mouth rightward, his tone upward into the cheek and his accent westward. The physical move is the mouth technique developed for radio, to prevent the plosives of English hitting the microphone head-on.

It is tempting to close the eyes and enjoy the sound were it not for the visuals. Kieran Bailey is the busiest of those on stage. Street life is evoked with a horn and the clatter of footfall. Ice cracks, doors open and close, the train comes and go. Bailey has a wooden frame containing a taut rope. He cranks a handle for the sound of a groaning sofa as it receives a sitter. Sound design is by Tony Davies, the music is composed by Robert Singer and lighting design is by Angharad Evans.

There is a nice line when Clarence first looks down from heaven and asks “Is he sick?” to which the answer is “No, he's discouraged.”

The plots that resound fall back on a few archetypes. George Bailey is his namesake Saint George, set to destroy the monster. Henry F. Potter, with the dystopian Pottersville in mind, is a villain without nuance. He occupies position number six on the American Film Institute's list of the best bad 'uns of film history. With his adversary undefeated Potter resorts to temptation. George takes home $48 a week from the family Savings and Loan company and is offered $20000 a year to make Pottersville.

The hero resists and goes on to suffer wounding. Loyalty to his Uncle Billy takes precedence over commercial vitality. “It's a Wonderful Life” jostles with big themes: fidelity to community, duty before self, the worth of a life. It is undeniably drawn in sharp contours, sharing a theme with the animation “Up.” Lives that are ostensibly small in themselves touch others in a myriad ways that are little noticed. In so doing they acquire an accumulated glory. It is the most seasonal of messages.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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