JOYCE MCMILLAN on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE at Pitochry Festival Theatre for The Scotsman, 6.12.13.
3 stars ***
IF YOU WANT TO PRESENT a stage version of one of the world’s best-loved films, first make sure that you have the right adaptation. Last year, Pitlochry thrilled festive audiences with a fine staging of Ives & Blake’s terrific 2004 adaptation of White Christmas; but Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life, chosen by director John Durnin as this year’s Pitlochry Christmas show, turns out to be a tougher proposition.
The story itself is a dark and challenging one, about a small-town good guy who runs a decent little savings & loan mortgage company that is under constant attack from the local big-time capitalist, Potter. And if the hero is on the point of suicide as the story begins – only to be saved by the arrival of his guardian angel, Clarence – the film version also comes without songs, although with plenty of music.
To create a musical out of It’s A Wonderful Life is therefore a complex task; and in truth, Thomas M. Sharkey’s 1987 version sometimes threatens to make a complete hash of it, with some strikingly awkward and utheatrical storytelling in the first half, and a score of 20 original songs which, with just a few exceptions, manage to seem both unnecessary and unmemorable.
What saves the show, in the end, is the sheer strength of this brilliant, timely story about different kinds of capitalism and their social consequences, the ingenuity of the staging, and the hard work of a cast who are often given very little chance to form a real bond with the audience, although Robin Harvey Edwards is in adorable form as Clarence. Stepping into the shoes of the great Jimmy Stewart, in his most famous role, was never going to be easy; but this version of the story makes it unnecessarily difficult, in ways that even the impressive Pitlochry team sometimes struggle to overcome.