The phrase "Every Time a Bell Rings" is well known and resonates especially at Christmas time: straight away we expect a link to the classic It’s a Wonderful Life, and are not disappointed.
There are some delightful moments and the attention to detail is considerable.
The saga begins with Clarence Oddbody before he meets George Bailey in the classic film, and the company intend this to be a prequel. In this, Clarence has tried many times to win his wings but has not been successful. Using the constellation talking device of the classic film, it is explained to us that he is to be sent to a group of Angels who form an elite squad, who can help him understand the ethos and the qualities needed in order to ultimately achieve his goal. Thus we are introduced to a portmanteau show, containing many different tales from this “crack team of Angelic educators” who each have a story to contribute.
This is a panto-esque show for the most part, although it changes in pitch and rhythm for each story, an effect which works really well. As a filmed live performance, this also includes some clever editing and use of film angles for use of asides, and in the Second World War story, real archive footage superimposed over the actors which made the scene suddenly appear to have many more people on stage.
The unique aspect of this show is that it involves real stories from the community local to the company in Bedford, including writing from the local community as part of the piece. This works both to its favour and to its detriment. It was fascinating to hear the true story of the Anzio Bell, from the Second World War; and the incredible story of Sandrine and Yarlswood Detention Centre. Both are powerful and heart wrenching, which juxtaposes just a little too much with the panto feel of some of the other content, and is a little too documentary especially in the latter. It also makes the show incredibly local, which is wonderful for Bedford of course, although it could be argued too parochial to translate nationally.
The references are based around Christmas 2020 and the up-to-the-minute rules and regulations in this pandemic world, including observations about six people at your Christmas table jokes which, they say in an aside would have worked two days before the show was shown live. Their horror at opening a box containing 2020 by accident and huge numbers of current jokes are very gratifying and genuinely funny.
There are some delightful moments and the attention to detail is considerable. These include a tableau of “Charlie’s Angels” on the command “Angel’s Assemble!”; the conversion from Clarence’s American accent to one from Bedford; and a tiny model of the street from It’s a Wonderful Life made from cardboard, which the actors shook icing sugar snow over - a street which showed the company’s previous production of Frankenstein the Panto at the cinema. There is also a pure panto section, and Neil Jennings is clearly one of the best Dames in any show, easily totally capturing the quintessential Dame characteristics. All the actors multi-role easily, but Neil Jennings steals it in this section.
This is a musical with heart and soul. We experience the whole gamut of emotions as we watch, and also learn new things. It does try to perhaps do too much: be a documentary and local community project alongside being a new national show; but its ambition can be understood. There is a lovely message for Christmas about loving and cherishing what you can, whatever your situation. It is hugely enjoyable, and well worth catching.