Theatre review: Kid Gloves never lives up to its promise

Despite its young age, Vancouver still has a rich and colourful history.  Included in that rich history are Canada’s first two female police who joined the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) in 1912 and are now the subjects of Sally Stubbs new play Kid Gloves, currently on stage at the Firehall Arts Centre.

With a liberal dose of imagination, given how little is know of these first two female Constables, playwright Sally Stubbs serves up a police mystery that at times felt like an episode of CSI: 1912.  Arriving in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Constables Lurancy Harris and Minnie Miller set out to uncover the link of corruption between City Hall and the seedier parts of this early Vancouver, while finding themselves protectors to young prostitute Mai Ji.

While little may be known of these two female trailblazers, in her imagined world of early Vancouver playwright Stubbs has chosen to make the rather unremarkable and curiously sanitized story of prostitute Mai Ji as the central conceit of her play.  That the story lost its focus on the two female Constables, who found themselves in the equally fertile grounds of the Downtown Eastside, felt like a huge wasted opportunity given recent modern headlines and the 100 year anniversary of women in policing.

In an early version of the script, playwright Stubbs also explored a sexual tension between Constable Minnie Miller and the working girl Mai Ji.  In the version that found its way on stage, this was frustratingly absent.

Scott Bellis and Colleen Wheeler in the Firehall Arts Centre production of Kid Gloves. Photo by David Cooper
Scott Bellis and Colleen Wheeler in the Firehall Arts Centre production of Kid Gloves. Photo by David Cooper.

Despite its disappointing focus though, Colleen Wheeler still manages to give a perfectly hard-nosed portrayal of Constable Lurancy Harris and there are some fun buddy-cop interactions with Dawn Petten who plays the other half of this turn-of-the-century Cagney and Lacey.

Patrick Keating is just the right amount of creepy as the Alderman with a secret and Deborah Williams brings some fun to the role of Mai Ji’s hulking protector and some great contrast with her second role as the Alderman’s wife.  Scott Bellis, who also plays double-duty, is perfectly gruff as the police Sergeant charged with looking after the newest recruits but feels ill-at-ease as the King of the Bawdy Houses, especially when he ends up in drag.  Marlene Ginader misses the mark as prostitute Mai Ji, with her musical numbers and an odd Charlie Chaplin routine both lackluster and barely audible.

A more liberal use of Francesca Albertazzi’s projections would have been welcome, especially given the inventiveness in a scene early on where they are used as part of a tribute to the silent movies of the time.

In what should be a fascinating piece of local history, Kid Gloves never quite lives up to its promise; what we end up with is a mediocre police mystery instead.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars Kid Gloves

By Sally Stubbs.  Directed by Donna Spencer.  A Firehall Arts Centre production.  On stage at the Firehall Arts Centre through December 1, 2012.  Visit http://firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.

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