Chris Haddock and Stan Douglas turn Vancouver from an environmentally friendly flower child of the 2010s into a sultry, slightly used, and somewhat seedy whore of the 1940s in their play Helen Lawrence. Several stories are juxtaposed over a veterans’ SRO, ready for demolition in a few weeks, and a version of Blood Alley, brimming with prostitutes, gambling addicts, PTSD-suffering WWII veterans, small-time sleazes, bookies, and corrupt police officers.
Helen, the title character, appears in Vancouver looking to revenge herself on her former lover, who left her to take the heat for the murder of Helen’s wealthy California husband. She appears in the hotel, and using pure Hollywood sex appeal, impresses the bellboy, Joe-not-Julie-Anymore, and the general manager, Harry.
The former lover, Percy, lives in the hotel and uses it as a base for his bookie business, and for working with Buddy, the local sleaze business owner, to buy up the businesses in the alley area so that Buddy’s remains the only open beer garden in town. Buddy’s brother Henry, a WWII veteran, is Buddy’s main rival on the strip, and both are being played by the corrupt Chief of Police, Muldoon, and his sidekick Sergeant Perkins.
Aside from Helen and the ambiguous Joe, the other female characters are more secondary: from Buddy’s mistress, Mary, who is waiting to hear whether her Air Force husband is dead or alive; Rose, an alley prostitute and former Japanese internee, pining for a better life; and Eva, a German war bride with a PTSD-suffering gambling addict of a husband.
The superb script of staccatoed dialogue helps to create a fast-paced, tense atmosphere, punctuated by quick and precise one liners that occasionally give release to the tension through a bit of comic relief. The acting is gripping, with each actor putting their all into a very intense drama, and the very real tragedy of everyday life on the streets of mid-century Vancouver.
On that note, it must be remarked that the city itself is a character, giving rise to the darkness and despair in each of the character’s lives, trapped in their own personal narratives, through the crumbling brick, the dirt roads, the skewed wooden fences, and the slat sided Edwardian houses.
If not for Haddock’s excellent writing, the whole play could be overshadowed by the actual staging. Douglas very cleverly layers a live shoot of the whole play onto an opaque screen that traverses the entire stage, behind which are several cameras that the actors, when not on stage performing, operate for the various close-ups, angles, frames etc…
The actors are all standing in front of giant blue screens so that when they are performing, the audience can see the actor both on the stage and on the screen: the screen shot is shown in black and white, and provides a very engaging backdrop for the dingy, rundown hotel, and gritty alley, surrounded by wooden shacks.
It feels as though you are watching a play in three dimensions layered on top of the usual three dimensions of our lines of sight: the screen, the cameras, and the actual stage. It’s a brilliant use of space, and the lighting is likewise effectively used to sometimes fade out the screens and to focus on the actors on the stage for a particularly poignant moment. The layered staging certainly helps to draw in and completely immerse the audience in the multiple plots
By the end of the play, you can hardly believe that you’ve just watched a play for ninety minutes straight, with no intermission, just like a movie. And, due to some excellent acting and staging, you become so caught up in the action, that you almost forgot that you are watching a play.