Rediscovering the secrets to a wonderful life

A classic film made more wonderful on stage

As I settled into my seat to watch Joining the Dots Theatre Company’s stage version of the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, I felt like Alice, having slipped down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland.

The night had begun in an other-worldly fashion, as we weaved our way to the Hellenic Art Theatre, squeezed into an industrial chic alcove of Marrickville, Sydney. We were greeted at the door by a Christmas tree – one of our delightful hosts in costume to match our ‘Christmas in July’ feast prior to the performance.

After dinner, we adjourned to the theatre itself, which, fittingly for the play we were about to watch, belonged to a bygone era. A simple set, consisting of ladders and a couple of chairs, adorned the stage. The rest, it seemed, would be up to the actors’ creativity and the audience’s imagination.

George and Mary Bailey (played by Alex Bryant-Smith and Madeleine Withington)

George and his soon-to-be-wife Mary (played by Alex Bryant-Smith and Madeleine Withington) in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Photo by Iain Cox/ Joining the Dots Theatre Facebook

The next 1.5 hours were given over entirely to the “magical realism” that made It’s a Wonderful Life such a Hollywood classic. The original film – released in 1946 and produced and directed by Frank Capra – was based on the story The Greatest Gift, self-published by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943. This story, in turn, was loosely based on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol.

The Joining the Dots production was true to the original film, with faultless directing by Nicholas Papdemetriou and impeccable timing and energy by the cast (along with convincing accents). The audience was transported to the town of Bedford Falls, New York, between the 1920s and 1940s – an era startlingly similar to our own. A flu epidemic raged and the Great Depression had ravaged businesses and housing affordability, creating financial and mental health stress. Add to this the impact of World War II, and it’s little wonder that we meet a family and community at breaking point.

Throughout the play, we journey with the main character George Bailey (passionately and expertly played by Alex Bryant-Smith), as he sacrifices his dreams of travel, college and a life outside his small town for the sake of his family and the community. Reminiscent of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, George endures setbacks, challenges and mistakes until he reaches the point where he gasps, “It would have been better if I’d never been born at all!”

The play reminds us of the value of small acts of kindness.

Then, on that Christmas Eve, George meets a divine visitor who changes his perspective on life entirely.

The play reminds us of the value of small acts of kindness – that, in the words of Papademetriou, “even the smallest events of our daily lives are more significant than we realise.” It is also a reminder of the value of human life, that our lives and relationships with others matter. In the words that ring out towards the end of the script, “No man is a failure who has friends.”

Significantly, this play points to a divine purpose for our existence and our place in life. This theme echoes the biblical truth that we are created in God’s image – we are “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

George comes to understand that his impact on his family and community is far greater than he knew. And through this magical evening, I’m sure every audience member was also prompted to examine their own impact on others in their world.

'It's a Wonderful Life' by Joining the Dots Theatre Company

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ by Joining the Dots Theatre Company Photo by Iain Cox/ Joining the Dots Theatre Facebook

As a 2023 viewer, it was delightful to consider the simple possibility of making a difference in the lives of those in my immediate community. To remember the joy of relationships with other people, those directly in front of you and next to you, rather than the hundreds of virtual connections that often govern our time. And to rediscover the hope and fulfilment that a life well lived – following our divine purpose and in close relationships with others – can bring.

It’s a Wonderful Life is currently playing at the Hellenic Art Theatre in Marrickville until 15 July. A pre-show Christmas-inspired dinner can be booked on selected nights, delivered by Dinner on the Table, a social enterprise that gifts meals to families living with a disability. For more information and tickets, visit the Joining the Dots Theatre Company website

For non-Sydney readers, perhaps you could revisit It’s a Wonderful Life film on your streaming platform.