1940s Ottawa childhoods, particularly those of the traditionally working class neighbourhood of Lowertown, could be as rough as they were exciting. As depicted in Brian Doyle’s classic novel, Angel Square, tensions ran high along racial lines and resulted in daily skirmishes between children in Angel Square, nestled between a Jewish, French-Canadian, and Catholic school. However, just as the children fight on a daily basis, so too are they close friends and allies. Through their eyes, the audience see the foolishness of racism and the value in being able to put aside petty differences and work together to achieve a goal. The Great Canadian Theatre (GCTC) partners with veteran director Janet Irwin to present her adaptation of the novel just in time for the holiday season. It contains some brilliantly vivid characters and evocative scenes, but doesn’t quite manage to match the warmth and atmosphere so plentiful in the novel.
Angel Square depicts the life of Tommy, an imaginative boy in Lowertown Ottawa the first winter after the end of World War Two. Tommy imagines himself as his hero, the crime-fighting Shadow of radio drama fame, which comes in very handy when anti-Semitism results in the injury of his best friend’s father. Together with his Jewish, Irish, and French-Canadian friends, he sets out to solve the mystery and catch the culprit.
GCTC’s production has some heart warming moments and some delightful characters, such as Tommy’s teachers and some of his friends. However, as a whole, it comes across as a bit flat for a story with so much inherent warmth and love. With a cast of four adult actors depicting mostly children, some characters come across better than others. Most of the children come across as adults playing dress-up. An exception to this is Kristina Watt’s performance. Playing mostly children, she transforms and depicts characters much younger than herself with stunning believability. The rest of the actors are clearly much more comfortable playing adults. While Robert Marinier is delightful or creepy in his myriad adult roles, he is not so smooth when he plays a child. The same can be said for Mary Ellis. Bruce Spinney is quite good as Tommy, though he frequently misremembers his lines, which makes him step out of his character and is quite distracting.
Jock Munro’s fine set and lighting do more than their part to prop up the atmosphere of the play. The set is flanked by a large old style radio, which is also used as the entrance to buildings, as well as to project any additional settings.
The GCTC’s production of Angel Square is a cute production, with the possibility of being truly great. It is filled with a cozy kind of nostalgia for yesterday’s Ottawa, though its message is timeless. However, with its cast of four adult actors who sometimes look out of place playing children, the atmosphere is just left of perfection. Still, it’s an enjoyable, all-ages classic that audiences will truly enjoy this holiday season.