It would be unfair to say the Echo Players’ set design team was relieved of duty for the theatre group’s annual holiday performance. On the other hand, its members probably have a little extra time to relax and toss back an eggnog as the community theatre troupe opens a two-week run of Merry Christmas, George Bailey! tonight at Village Theatre in Qualicum Beach.
The play re-enacts the popular holiday film classic It’s a Wonderful Life. But, rather than stage the action in a fictional Bedford Falls, director Lesley McVey has turned to a radio play format, with actors reading from scripts on stage.
For this story, it actually works. Close your eyes, and you can “see” the story play out in your imagination. Open them, and you’ll see actors dressed in 1940s period costumes and performing on a radio sound stage dressed up for the holidays with lights, poinsettias and wrapped presents.
The “action” takes place at four microphone stands lined up at the front of the stage, as the actors rotate from rows of chairs to the mics and back.
The radio announcer — actual radio announcer Dave Graham in his Echo Players’ debut — is seated at one end of the stage under an On Air sign, and Denise Schuetz-Jones and Susan Warner work their Foley’s Artists sound effects kit at the opposite end. Pianist Kathy Harper, who plays the incidental music, is also in the thick of the action on stage.
There are even a couple of breaks for “a word from our sponsor,” with several actors stepping forward to sing jingles in praise of Qualicum Foods while Graham reads off 1940s sale prices on items ranging from ham to fresh fruit.
Having the actors all on stage at all times gives McVey a perpetual pool of “extras” to provide background chatter in scenes like a crowded bar or the front parlour of the Bailey home in the final scene.
From left, Tyler Sturgiss, Kevan Hill-Tout, Tina Sturgess, Len Winter and Alex Hunter perform a scene from the Echo Players’ radio theatre production of Merry Christmas, George Bailey!, which runs Dec. 17-31 at Village Theatre in Qualicum Beach. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/PQB NEWS
The story is ostensibly that of novice angel Clarence (Mike Andrews), who is seeking his wings under the tutelage of head angel Joseph (Alistair McVey). To do so, Clarence must help George Bailey during a particularly dark time.
The pivotal scene borrows from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Clarence guiding George through an alternate existence in which he has never been born.
But most of the action revolves around Bailey, played by Tyler Sturgess in a strong debut. Sturgess not only emotes throughout the “reading” of the play, but has the self-awareness to engage the audience directly with a quick grin or raised eyebrow — a facet of the radio play format that would be unthinkable in a traditional staged play.
Jim Windsor is also convincing in an understated performance as the villianous Henry Potter. Already imposing as the largest physical presence on stage, he looms over the troubled Bailey dressed completely in black, with a scowling mien and gravelly voice. Tina Sturgess is animated in both of her “roles” as Violet, a bubbly former schoolmate of George’s who becomes a streetwise lady of the evening in the alternate “ghost George” scene.
The huge cast of 28, which includes youngsters from both the elementary and secondary school levels, boasts a wide range of experience, and the individual performances reflect that range. But taken as a whole, they manage a time-tested classic with class and aplomb.
Merry Christmas, George Bailey! runs tonight through Dec. 31 at Village Theatre, with a special dinner show on New Year’s Eve. Advance tickets have been selling briskly; to check on ticket prices and availability, showtimes and other information, call the box office at 250-752-3522 or visit www.echoplayers.ca.