Using a clever technique where actors are filmed live and projected on a gauze screen in front of the stage, Helen Lawrence‘s 1948 Vancouver setting is brought to life by superimposing the captured performances on top of computer generated backgrounds. Train carriages, ghettos, offices and mean city streets are thus conjured from a blank stage, with movie-style lighting and precision placement of the cast contributing to the illusion’s success.
The suspension of disbelief required is sleight: the technique employed is suitably seamless to be convincing, with very few visible joins shattering the spell. Performances by the twelve-strong cast are impressive, with most managing to nail the hard-boiled melodrama of the genre which Helen Lawrence pays tribute to. Lisa Ryder’s Lawrence is suitable vampish and fatale, whilst Sterling Jarvis’ Henry Williams displays all the embittered despair of a man whose dreams have been broken by war and betrayal. Best of all is Haylee McGee’s puckish Julie, who provides much of the piece’s comic relief via a wonderfully expressive performance.
The plot sways between homage and pastiche, and – whilst having ample opportunities to delve deeper into its potential themes of racial conflict, corruption and betrayal – chooses to remain relatively superficial, hurtling along like the night train which bookends the action. And, whilst the video technique is undeniably a great feat from all concerned, it overshadows opportunities for emotional depth and engagement, at times as lacking in soul as cutscenes from a videogame.
With expectations of greatness put aside, Helen Lawrence is enjoyable and clever, with several performances to savour. Ultimately however, Canadian Stage’s homage to film noir ends up lacking in both colour and depth.