It’s a Wonderful Life

December 17, 2019 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆  Half-life

Edinburgh Storytelling Centre: Sun 15 – Sat 21 December
Review by Martin Gray

They say your life flashes before you before you die and that’s certainly the impression left by Floating Brick Theatre’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life at the Storytelling Centre this week.

Frank Capra’s much loved James Stewart film isn’t so much adapted as filleted, with what remains played at double speed.

It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey, a big dreamer in a small town whose plans to leave and make his mark on the world are constantly derailed by his good heart.

Tamas Fazakas and Clare McVay. Pic: Floating Brick

While George never gets to travel the globe, and go to college to train as an architect, he does win the love of a good woman, they have gorgeous kids and plenty of friends. And he does a lot of good at Bailey’s Savings and Loan, building decent houses so people can escape the slums of spider-like miser Potter. One day, things go badly wrong just before Christmas and, with financial ruin facing the family and George told he’s worth more dead than alive by Potter, he decides to drown himself in the river.

But George’s friends and family members are praying for him so Heaven sends help. Enter Clarence, Angel Second Class, promised her wings if she helps George to stop being disheartened. The despairing George tells his new friend he wishes he’d never been born. Not too bright but with a massive heart, Clarence hits on the notion of showing George exactly what the world would be like without him.

first rate

The acting in the show, adapted from the movie and directed by Tamas Fazakas, is first rate. The seven cast members – including Fazakas himself as George – populate Bedford Falls and its darker twin, Pottersville, with believable types. Fazakas makes a great George, properly endearing but no sap and with attractive Stewart vocal stylings, while Clare McVay is perfect as Mary, the love of his life.

Callum Douglas and Tamas Fazakas. Pic: Floating Brick

Angela Milton is a gender-flipped Clarence – still Clarence, not Clarinda – and entirely convincing as the Twain-loving nearly 300-year-old cherub. Ben Blow is a delightfully rotten Potter, physically and vocally imposing. And Malcolm Jamieson, Callum Douglas and Samuel Thorne – who provides the music with his impressive keyboard skills – are terrific as the townsfolk, playing several parts apiece.

The direction is sharp, with the cast making good use of the auditorium as well as the playing area, and the energy amazing… it has to be, as Fazakas has cut the narrative time down from the film’s two hours and ten minutes to a scant 75 minutes.

tough to connect

It’s not unfair to make a direct comparison – this show is billed as being ‘based on Frank Capra’s motion picture’ – and while I can’t say what the experience of this show would be for someone who hasn’t seen the film, I do believe the Fringe show-sized length hurts the story. It’s tough to connect with the characters when scenes that take several minutes on screen are whittled down to Reduced Shakespeare Company-style vignettes.

Ben Blow. Pic: Floating Brick

George’s entire childhood, which is deeply affecting as filmed by director Frank Capra and vital in introducing the real George Bailey to Clarence – and us – is here whittled down to a few lines of dialogue from the unseen celestial overseers as a few seconds of sledding are projected on a generally intrusive moon backdrop.

Mr Gower, the pharmacist destroyed by the loss of his son in the Great War, is mentioned, but unseen. Violet, the saucy little girl who likes George, doesn’t seem to exist. These are people who mean something to George, and not having them available for the supposed nightmare noir of Pottersville, the seedy hamlet Bedford Falls becomes without the essential goodness of our hero, makes George’s alternate world less powerful.

Indeed, the Pottersville sequence whizzes by so quickly, and in such an offhand, told-rather-than-shown, manner, that it’s difficult to see quite why George is so upset.

centrepiece

The centrepiece graduation dance – in the film a nicely paced scene which ends with George and Mary distractedly Charlestoning into an underfloor swimming pool – zooms by and instead of the floor opening to swallow the revellers, the gym is cleared due to a fire alarm. This makes the subsequent film-following clothing of Mary in a wet robe, and George in a borrowed football sweater, a bit of a head scratcher.

Malcolm Jamieson and Ben Blow. Pic: Floating Brick

One very notable absence is George finding daughter Zuzu’s petals in his pocket after he rejects the frightening world conjured up by Clarence, a huge tearjerker of a moment. The business is set up here, but it never pays off, the petals forgotten.

As for the final moral, that no man is a failure who has friends, it’s there and gone so quickly that it makes little impact.

In terms of talent, all the ingredients are here for a fantastic Christmas show; Fazakas obviously loves his source material, but not enough of it makes it to the stage. What we do get is offered at such a clip that the four-hankie experience of the film original isn’t duplicated. It’s more a case of parts of the story reminding you of the whole, like a Secret Cinema presentation.

I’d love to see Floating Brick given grants enough to allow them to further develop this show, make it a game of two halves rather than a one-act wonder – then it really would be a wonderful life.

Running time: 75 minutes, no interval
Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High Street, EH1 1SR. Box Office: 0131 556 9579
Sun 15 – Sat 21 December (not Fri) 2019
Evenings (not Fri): 7.30; Sat Mat: 4pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

ENDS

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