3 stars ***
THERE’S NOTHING like 1940’s film noir; the genre has style, class, intelligence, hard-won cynicism and lingering romance, all delivered in a form that’s instantly recognisable yet infinitely flexible. Stan Douglas’s Helen Lawrence, created by the Canadian Stage company of Toronto, is a 95-minute screen thriller set in postwar Vancouver, created live on stage as a kind of installation. Lit in thick golden light, the actors move around behind a gauze screen, followed by cameras which project their moving images onto the screen in classic black and white; and when the screen action appears, it’s also accompanied by background monochrome images of the streets, alleyways, foyers and rooms where the action takes place – images inspired by the work of the 1940’s Vancouver photo-journalists Raymond Munro and Art Jones, and recreated with tremendous care and style.
The problem with Douglas’s show, though, is that the simmering potential of the format never seems fully realised. In terms of form, the show is overwhelmingly a screen experience. The live actors are dimly visible, but the huge screen images command almost all the audience’s attention; and only in one brief final moment are the live actors allowed to speak directly, in the kind of challenge to the all-powerful screen image that could have been used more often, and more interestingly.
As for the story, by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock – well, the narrative starts well enough, with the classic mystery blonde, the rampant police corruption, the black gangster brothers vying for control of their semi-legal booze and betting business; but despite some enjoyable attempts to foreground the stories of the women caught up in the narrative, it loses focus on its mysterious heroine, and never quite achieves the full political and social resonance of a truly great film noir.
For all that, though, Douglas’s 12-strong ensemble produce some magnificent acting, exploring and revelling in the sheer theatricality of the film noir style. Lisa Ryder is a superbly glamorous and life-worn Helen Lawrence, Crystal Balint is magnificent as the strong and elegant girlfriend of Allan Louis’s subtle and impressive leading gangster, Haley McGee is irresistible as the little hotel desk-clerk who would rather be a boy. And although Helen Lawrence is a show that never quite delivers on its promise, it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour or two in the theatre – or is it the cinema? – towards the end of a long Festival.