Gallery: Learning about a wonderful life on stage

As the New Wolsey Theatre is preparing to stage a world premiere, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke went to see how rehearsals for the younger members of the cast were getting on.

Andrew Clarke

As the New Wolsey Theatre is preparing to stage a world premiere, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke went to see how rehearsals for the younger members of the cast were getting on.

Upstairs at the New Wolsey Theatre's studio facilities in George's Street in Ipswich, there is much screaming, shouting and running around. As I venture tentatively into the building, the thunder of feet above me conjures up the impression of a spooked herd of cattle in full flight from some 1940s western or a hoard of St Trinian's schoolgirls hurtling down-the-stairs waving hockey sticks and out for blood.

As I poke my head around the door, the reality is that associate Wolsey director Rob Salmon is putting a group of child actors through some improvised games as part of the rehearsals for the New Wolsey's world premiere of It's A Wonderful Life.

Produced in association with Avalon Promotions, this fully-staged musical version of the Frank Capra classic movie which starred James Stewart and Donna Reed.

The story is a heartwarming tale of small-town community life, of self-doubt and validation. It's become a staple fixture of the Christmas telly schedules thanks to its uplifting, life-affirming message.

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George Bailey, played at the New Wolsey by Paul Thornley, grows up in the small town of Bedford Falls, dreaming dreams of adventure and travel, but circumstances conspire to keep him enslaved to his home turf. Frustrated by his life, and haunted by an impending scandal, George prepares to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. Rescued by his Guardian Angel, played by Jo Servi, George is shown what life in Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born. Finally realising the richness of his life, he returns back to the bosom of his family, where he discovers that the population of Bedford Falls, all of whom he has affected for the better, have clubbed together to save him from bankruptcy.

The screenplay has been adapted for the stage by Steve Brown, who wrote the music for Spend, Spend, Spend, the story of pools winner Viv Nicholson which went on to win two Olivier awards and an Evening Standard Award for Best New Musical when it was first staged in 1999.

Although this new musical is being presented as a co-production with a London-based company the production is being directed by New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe and will receive its world premiere in Ipswich on September 10.

In addition to the large cast of 17 adults in the play, the production also features two teams of seven children who will perform in rota.

It is these children, all local children, chosen from open auditions held this summer at the Wolsey who are now running riot with Rob Salmon acting as some beleaguered ringmaster, as he orchestrates this seemingly complex game which is currently underway.

Seeing my arrival in the room Rob brings the game to an end and these supposedly wild children are suddenly as good as gold.

They each take a seat in the auditorium area of the studio and we settle down to have a chat about their first days as young actors in a brand new show.

Listening to them talk, it is obvious there is a tremendous sense of expectation. Rehearsals are fun and are clearly going well. There is a tangible buzz in the room as the youngsters fight to voice their opinions and offer answers to my questions.

The first matter to clear up is have any of them seen the original film? There's a chorus of shouts and cries of yes. Rob explains that on the first day he sat them all down and showed them the film, so they all knew what they doing.

It turns out that a couple of the more enterprising youngsters even found a copy of the DVD to watch before the auditions in early August.

Competition in the auditions was intense there were 97 girls and 22 boys competing for 14 places in the show. For many of the youngsters who made it successfully through the auditions, this is not their first venture on stage. Many have done amateur drama shows and virtually all have been in school productions. Only five have never had any experience of appearing on stage before. It is, however, their first professional show and the stakes are inevitably raised.

It is Rob's job to make sure that rehearsals are fun but the kids are ready and able to work with the adults when the show opens on September 10.

Rob said: “It's a big ask for the kids, but we have some exceptionally talented youngsters here and I have no doubts that they will be ready to give the adults a run for their money.”

I then ask the kids what is it about acting that they like - the answers fly back thick and fast: “It's fun, you get to meet other people like you, you get to be someone else, it's like escaping from your own world.” For others they like singing and dancing. One lad said: “It's just not like anything else.”

For Rob who has to organise rehearsals, it's a big job. He has to liaise with Peter Rowe and the main production team, find out what they want from the children and then rehearse the kids accordingly.

All this is made more difficult by the fact that Peter and the main production team are rehearsing in London and will only be arriving in Ipswich one week before the show.

This will be the first time that the children get to play opposite their adult counterparts.

Rob said that rehearsals were broken down into the play's component parts and would be assembled to make a rough halfway version of what would end up on stage and would be fine-tuned when the adult and children's rehearsals combined.

“It's got to be flexible enough to change things around when we get on the set with the adult cast. We still need to be able to change things if necessary.

“A lot of what we are doing at the moment is learning performance skills - that's what we were doing when you arrived. What we need is for everyone to be really clear and big, physically and vocally. In between that we are working with a dialogue coach and with the musical director, costume fittings, we are planning to take the youngsters down to London for a day so they can meet the adult cast and the production team, so they can get a sense of what is going on there. It's a really busy time.”

He said that there wasn't time to teach singing, so apart from imparting a few tricks of the trade, work with the music director was spent on learning the songs. “The cast were auditioned on the strength of their singing and acting skills.”

He said that the only children with solos are the youngsters playing the young George. There is also the possibility that the author Steve Brown may also be penning a new, additional song for young George at the end of show where he revisits the older George and gives him permission to do what he wants in life - but that has yet to be confirmed.

“That's the joy if doing a world premiere - nothing is set in stone, everything changes all the time. No-one has ever done this play before and we get to shape it and play it unencumbered by what anyone else has done before.”

He said after two weeks of all day rehearsals, it moves into afternoon and evenings before they then launch into a week of technical rehearsals on the main Wolsey stage.

“It's a big ask for the kids and we've told them that things will change right up to the last moment but I think they are more than up to the challenge.”

There are two teams of children playing seven roles. Harry Salter and Charlie Pitman both play young George, Marcus Nichols and Euan Logan play young Harry, Oliver Driver and Harry Pentreath will play young Sam, Sian Bartlett and Lucy Roper play young Mary, Chanel McKenzie and Lauren Byford play Janie, Jamie McKie and James Baker play Pete and Tia Hamilton and Beatrice Wilson play Zuzu.

Of the adult cast Helen Anker plays George's childhood sweetheart and wife Mary, Michael Fenton Stevens plays George's father Peter, Kerry Washington plays his mother, Paul Leonard, recently seen in Chorus of Disapproval and in Sweeney Todd, plays town despot Henry F. Potter, James Paterson is George's scatterbrain business partner Uncle Billy.

Other cast members include Chris Grierson, Tony Stansfield , Harrison Hugo Harold, Bryan Kennedy, Lucinda Shaw, Keith Neil Smye, Keith Anthony Higham, Mairi Cowieson, while Gemma Atkins and Francesca Ellis are members of the ensemble.

It's A Wonderful Life, a musical adaptation by Steve Brown is at The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from September 10 to October 3. Tickets are available online at or on 01473 295900.