Review: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A Live Radio Play

by Lynn on December 1, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Playing until Dec. 30, 2023.

Adapted by Joe Landry

Based on the story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern

From the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling

Directed by Herbie Barnes

Set and Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting by Shawn Henry

Sound and Foley Consultant, John Gzowski

Cast: Caitlyn MacInnis

Amy Matysio

Shaquille Pottinger

Anand Rajaram

Cliff Saunders

Inventive and joyful.

It’s a Wonderful Life, a Live Radio Play of course is a change of pace from a regular play, but this is no less moving, joyful or celebratory.

The story of George Bailey is the basis of the radio play but how it’s told in front of the theatre audience is what is so magical and interesting. We see this hard-working, energetic cast read the script at microphones, while other cast members make the sound effects needed to create the world of the play. A door closes in a door frame upstage to suggest a person is coming through a door-well and arrives at a destination. A bowl hauled out of a pail of water causes a sound effect to suggest a character is drowning. There are things located around the set that provide sound effects of a person walking, followed by the door closing, followed by other sound effects. Kudos to John Gzowski for the sound and foley work.

Director, Herbie Barnes has directed his cast to be nimble, quick, agile, energetic and very inventive with voices, characterization and body language (even though this is radio) to realize their many and various characters. It’s the kind of activity that shows the theatre audience how radio and even theatre might be made. The audience sees the tricks of making sounds using props and stuff that makes noise.

The story of George Bailey (Shaquille Pottinger) is there front and center. We see George as a young kid who saves his young brother from drowning. George grows up and wants to go to college but there isn’t enough money so he goes to work at a savings and loan company. He works for a mean, stingy man but George’s humanity and kindness towards his fellow citizens is clear. He is always helping others. He rises up in the company. There are bumps along the way—the bank might fail. People need money so George helps out with his own savings.

A parallel story is Clarence (Cliff Saunders) who is an angel waiting for his wings. To earn his wings he has to save George who has fallen on hard times and wants to end it all. Clarence shows George what life would be like without him on earth. Startling. Then George is shown a miracle he didn’t expect. Clarence gets his wings and George gets back his zest for life.

The performances are deliberately broad to accommodate the radio audience at the time. So, Shaquille Pottinger as George is exuberant and sweet. Cliff Saunders playing many parts is almost manic and therefore funny as he segues from character to character. Anand Rajaram also plays many parts including George’s father, which he does in a Jimmy Stewart accent and voice—harkening back to the film in which Jimmy Stewart starred. Rajaram is an explosion of invention playing many and various characters with style and verve. Caitlyn MacInnis and Amy Matysio play the female characters with distinction and detail.  

Young People’s Theatre Artistic Director, Herbie Barnes told the opening night audience that he programmed It’s a Wonderful Life, A Live Radio Play because it was a show for the whole family to see together and then discuss afterwards. What magic for kids to see how a sound is made, from a door slamming, to water splashing, to a fluttering of hanging metal that makes a tinkling sound. Wonderful.

Herbie Barnes also wrote a programme note that is so worth repeating and so I will:

“As we programmed our 2023.24 season—over a year ago—we had to try to foresee what might be of most importance for young people. Immediately post-pandemic (last season) we focused on bringing back joy.

When we selected It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play as our holiday offering, we had already noticed something else—the struggle that so many faced in re-learning how to share space with one another. Altercations on our transit systems, in our classrooms and on our streets started to appear in headlines.

Our time of isolation made us forget that we are a community and that we need each other to exist. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a shining example of that simple fact. George Bailey spends his whole life giving to his neighbours. And in this play, his community is finally able to return that generosity.”


Young People’s Theatre presents:

Plays until Dec. 30, 2023.

Running time: 80 minutes, approx.

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