It might take a train trip to get there, but the warmest, most appropriately celebratory, Christmas spirit entertainment currently on offer is well worth the journey to Beverley. It’s A Wonderful Life, the film version of which is a permanent fixture of television schedules everywhere during the Christmas season, turns out, in the hands of insightful director Jake Smith, to be quintessential theatrical fare for the time of the year when one’s focus should be on love and friendship. East Riding Theatre as a hit on its hands which could transfer anywhere and inspire laughter and tears of the right kind.
Christmas entertainment tends to fall into two categories: Pantomime or sentimental twaddle. Occasionally there are treats, scarcer than the Ghosts of Christmas Future, but perhaps involving productions of A Christmas Carol or its musical counterpart, Scrooge, which are sensitively approached. But they are rare indeed.
Now playing at Beverley’s East Riding Theatre, a stones throw from 2017’s City of Culture, Hull, is Jake Smith’s beautiful production of Mary Elliott Nelson’s adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life, itself an adaptation of The Greatest Gift, a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. It glows with radiant intelligence, delights endlessly, and packs an emotional punch by steering well clear of mawkish sentimentality. It’s brilliant.
Smith takes a complex story, that plays out over decades and different timelines, and treats it with stylish simplicity. Ed Ullyart’s set, lit masterfully by Simon Bedwell, creates a naive impression of Christmas in a snowy, American country town, Bedford Falls. The houses are small and doll-house like, banners and flags summon up local businesses, the spirit of the town, automobiles and trains are conveyed by cute tiny tot versions, and a part of a bridge dominates the horizon, over which an ethereal Moon watches vigilantly. It could be a folksy Christmas card.
But this is no ordinary Christmas. This year an Angel has descended from Heaven in an attempt to earn wings – by preventing a family man whose business is in trouble from committing suicide on Christmas Eve. Cleverly, the Angel shows the man – flawed but loveable George – what the world would be like if he had never been born. That shocks George out of his funk and he finds that things in his life are not as black as he thought. Christmas presents abound – including for the Angel, who gets her wings.
Yes, her wings. One of Smith’s many clever refinements to Elliott Nelson’s adaptation is to make the Angel a witty, warm, slightly kooky, but completely beguiling, woman. It’s a stroke of genius and serves to instantly differentiate the film version from this fully alive version. Harriet Benson, seriously gifted in every way, makes the most of the role and shines light into every facet the role offers – her Angel takes flight and provides an unexpectedly zesty spirit to proceedings. When she gets her wings, the moment is genuinely magical.
Smith utilises double casting to good effect. Richard Avery is terrific as Uncle Billy, and the moment when he collapses in grief realising the enormity and repercussions of his distracted mistake, the one which throws George into his suicidal spiral, is perfectly judged, quietly devastating. In contrast, his turn as the slightly comical Mr Martini strikes a different, but equally compelling, tone.
Robert Hamilton, one of those young actors who appears too good-looking to be actually able to act, defies expectations and plays a variety of roles with easy, skilful flair. He is totally convincing as the capable-of-being tough cop, Bert, in both versions of George’s life, and then is completely different, but instantly winning, as the returning war hero, Harry, George’s brother.
As Mr Potter, who serves as the villain of the piece really, Clive Kneller is entertainly rapacious and keenly awful. His betrayal of George is truly gripping. His Gower is a sweeter creature, and makes the jigsaw of personalities which make up George’s wider circle more interesting. Laurence Ellerker is another key contributor to this circle, ebulliently so.
There are some excellent child performers as well. I saw Team Moon – Maia Clucas, Joe Heatley and Conor Murphy. They were all excellent; real, truthful performances. None of that “look at me” style so frequent on London stages. The scene where Young Harry almost drowns works startlingly well, as does the scene where George reduces his daughter to tears merely because she is practising the piano for a family party. These are moments which could easily be overplayed and awkward – but Smith hits the mark properly with young actors of real skill.
One of the cleverest things about Smith’s production is the use of original music composed specially for this production by David Barton. The music is intensely enjoyable and every phrase adds lustre to the staging and the sense of the work. There is a particular moment when Laura Peterson is wearing a glorious red dress, the kind movie stars of the period might have worn, and Barton’s music underscores the sensuality and sizzling splendour of the incident.
Barton’s score serves as a musical tapestry which supports the production but which is entirely enjoyable on its own terms. If there had been a soundtrack of the score available, it would have been an irresistible purchase. Infectious and rousing and, ultimately, sensitively touching, Barton’s score is the essence of Christmas joy. Traditional carols and Auld Lang Syne are also used by Barton and Smith effectively.
When Benson’s Angel transports George to the alternate timeline, Barton’s music fuses with some electrifying movement from Helen Carpenter, to create a vivid, umbrella-fuelled moment of real power. Terrific stuff.
Of course, It’s A Wonderful Life can’t work without a superb central performance from the actor playing George and, here, Smith plays an ace card. Andrew Joshi quickly dispels any trace of James Stewart from the role and makes George a wonderfully rounded, utterly real character, complete with temper, rashness and loss of control, as well as the expected generosity of spirit, indulgent kindness and devoted love.
By making George whole, Joshi elevates the entire production and eliminates any sense of schmaltzy nostalgia. When he rails on his child’s teacher and his adoring wife, it seems real, a part of his character always present but never previously required. Equally, he makes the interactions with Benson, fantastical as they are, seem normal, truthful, tangible. Joshi really is exceptional.
He is given superlative support from Eliza Hewitt-Jones who completely eschews the soppy Donna Reed approach to George’s wife, Mary. Her beautiful performance matches Joshi’s for its intensity and charm; she is elegance personified, but her Mary is also a grafter, a true partner who has backed and supported George in all his endeavours. When, in the alternate timeline, she runs away from him, howling with fear and trepidation, it is a moment both chilling and poignant.
Everything about Smith’s production works, really works. The costumes supplied by Sylvia Eagles and Eddie Jackson are excellent – the resources of the East Riding Theatre cannot be that great, but what they achieve with little puts shame to the budgets of the National Theatre. The whole effect of the production is joyful.
Smith’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life demonstrates a great truth – not all the best theatre in the UK can be found in London or even the main regional centres. Talent is everywhere and those who love theatre should search it out.
Head to Beverley and enjoy the magic of theatre. East Riding Theatre knows what that is.