Review: Helen Lawrence (Canadian Stage/Arts Club Theatre Company/The Banff Centre)


Canadian Stage’s Helen Lawrence uses technology to blend live theatre and film on the Toronto stage

Helen Lawrence is a visually stunning hybrid of theatre, film and visual art. The brainchild of Vancouver-based visual artist Stan Douglas and Canadian screenwriter Chris Haddock, the show takes the performances of live onstage actors filmed against a chromakey blue screen and blends them with CGI scenery to create a sort of real-time, live-action film that’s projected onto a scrim in front of the stage.

The show is set in a late 1940s, post-war Vancouver and done in a gritty, film noir style employing all the standard noir tropes; the femme fatale, the gangsters in pinstripe suits, the corrupt police detectives, the moral ambiguity and the general sense of malaise.

Stan Douglas led a team of visual artists to create the perfect dark, brooding backdrops for the show; run-down rooming houses, dimly-lit back alleys, ornate hotel lobbies, trains and period cityscapes are all stunningly rendered in 3D. The actors film each other live on stage and the footage blends seamlessly with the CGI scenery. Whether it’s a close-up or a wide-angle shot, it looks consistently gorgeous.

While the show looks amazing I wasn’t 100 percent sold on the script and the direction. I thought the central conflict was as much muddled as it was mysterious and I found the pacing a bit slow. Part of the reason is that the noir style requires a bit of a languid, slow burn and while the show succeeds at establishing a festering sense of uneasiness what I thought it lacked was tension and sense of urgency.

I also found that the performances were dialled down and subtle. For this show, the screen is the conduit to the audience and cast is very much performing for the camera so they have to be much more nuanced and restrained than they would be were they performing directly to the live audience. The result is more realistic performances but ones that are filtered through another medium before reaching the audience which I thought contributed to a bit of the low-energy feel of the show.

Regardless, the ensemble of Helen Lawrence is consistently strong and capable of pulling off the slightly campy performances required of a noir show. Standout performances included Lisa Ryder in the title role; equal parts sharp, biting, mysterious and sexy, she is every bit the femme fatale; and Haley McGee as Julie “Joe” Winters, the sapphic, wise-cracking character is responsible for most of the show’s humour but McGee shows a restraint in her performance that also allows her character be relatable and sympathetic.

When I first read about Helen Lawrence I was fascinated but a bit skeptical as to whether they could convincingly pull off such a complex technical concept in a way that didn’t seem artificial or cheesy but in the end I was wowed. Despite a few problems with the pacing, the execution is incredibly sleek and the results are eye-popping.


  • Helen Lawrence is playing from October 12 to November 16, 2014 at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St. E)
  • Shows run Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Friday at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $30 – $99
  • Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online at

Photo of Hrothgar Mathews and Lisa Ryder by David Cooper.