Guest Review: Kid Gloves at Firehall Arts Centre
It came as a shock to hear that the RCMP did not begin hiring women until 1974 (and, disgracefully, appears to have been harassing them ever since). As early as 1912, on the other hand, The Vancouver Police Department swore in Canada’s first two women constables – Lurancy Harris and Minnie Miller. Their mandate, apparently influenced by the church, wasn’t to handle the usual cops and robbers stuff but to deal with the “female morality question” – in other words, to shut down prostitution on the mean streets of Vancouver, population 100,000.
Playwright Sally Stubbs has done her homework but there wasn’t a lot of documentation to go on. What is true is that Harris and Miller were condemned to wear the ankle-length skirts of the day and that they ran up against a good deal of condescension if not the outright hostility of their male colleagues.
Kid Gloves, therefore, is a fictionalized account and Stubbs and director Donna Spencer have run with it, beginning with large projected b/w archival photos of the city. “Fingers” Jeff McMahan tickles the ivories of a battered old upright. It feels like an old silent movie, even incorporating a vaudeville act with charming Irish-Canadian lawbreaker Conor O’Rourke (Scott Bellis) and hooker/dance hall gal Mai Ji (Marlene Ginader) doing a takeoff on a Charlie Chaplin routine – bowler hat, cane, little mustache and all.
Colleen Wheeler, as Lurancy is a tough cookie rookie, striding in a most un-ladylike manner around the precinct, the street and The Hive, the local saloon/brothel. Dawn Petten is Minnie, a seemingly frail, nervous creature whose mouse like quality might be the reason she’s called Squeak by her uncle Alderman Daniel Crane (Patrick Keating). We like these women, we’re rooting for these two Cagney and Lacey forerunners.
And herein lies a problem with Kid Gloves. So successfully has the playwright been in endearing Lurancy and Minnie to us, we want her to get on with it. The vaudeville scenes – set stage right on a raised ‘stage’ complete with curtains, interrupt the flow of the story. Sure, they’re fun and it was great to hear a song my mother used to sing while doing the dishes – “Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee”. But the two long-ish Hive scenes could just hint at what was going on there and then get back to Minnie and Lurancy hot on the trail of corruption.
The ending is very abrupt and while leaving a door open – or, in this case, opening a door – is often a provocative idea, nothing in the style of Kid Gloves prepares us for this conclusion.
Stubbs has, however, created very interesting characters and Spencer pulls it together with a stellar cast. The opportunity to see Wheeler and Petten together on stage is worth the price of admission. Scott Bellis – marvelous in whatever role he takes on – is a thoroughly charming bad guy and Patrick Keating shines in another mealy-mouthed, weasely role. Ginader does her best with what is, perhaps, the least interesting character. But it’s Deborah Williams as big, burly Bella Boychuk – who can bend bars of steel and threatens to break a few bones – who steals the show. “Sing. Sing now!” she bawls in a thick eastern European accent while giving us the evil eye. Better believe it: we sing.
Half of the show happens on a Francesca Albertazzi’s shabby grey set with a prison cell stage left; the rest of it is at The Hive with an elevated, rumpled bedroom where Mai Ji plies her trade. McMahan, in a straw boater hat, plays a lively rag and honkytonk piano where we can see him, far stage right.
Produced by the Firehall Arts Centre, this is a world premiere. The ongoing investigations into the RCMP’s treatment of women make Kid Gloves timely in that plus ça change way; tightening the focus on Minnie and Lurancy would make it a stronger play.
Kid Gloves is on stage until December 1 at the Firehall Arts Centre. Tickets & info at: firehallartscentre.ca