It’s a familiar city and the neighbourhood rings a bell. The streets are the same and some of the landmarks are recognizable. But it’s all just not quite right, the timing is off and the setting is a little more somber.
If you’ve grown up in Ottawa, chances are you’ve learnt a little bit about the sector formerly known as Lowertown and its sometimes dark, often seedy past. In 1945, this area was known as a working class district inhabited mostly by Francophones, Irish Catholics and Jewish immigrants. Angel Square, a children’s novel written by Brian K. Doyle in 1984, captures exactly that – the brutal, anti-Semitic past of the vibrant neighbourhood we now know as the ByWard Market.
Janet Irwin has taken this heartwarming tale and turned it into a family-friendly full stage production that follows Tommy, a 12-year-old boy, on an adventure through the rough and tumble streets of Lowertown. After his best friends’ father falls victim to a brutal anti-Semitic beating, Tommy is inspired by his favourite radio show detective, The Shadow, to hunt for the unknown assailant.
Angel Square had its first onstage appearance at the NAC in 1987 with an original cast of 36 people. Irwin’s renewed adaptation has found a home at the GCTC with a considerably smaller, concentrated cast solely made up of four adult actors.
Bruce Spinney commands the stage and effortlessly transforms into the spirited Tommy, save for a few instances where he fumbled through his lines. Spinney was complemented by an incredible supporting cast. Kristina Watt, Robert Marinier and Mary Ellis masterfully take on the remaining characters of the performance, including Tommy’s family, his gang of diverse friends, a troop of his teachers and so on. This cast seamlessly slipped in and out of one character, only to transition into another, defying any constraints you might expect there to be surrounding an actor’s age and gender.
Irwin lets the powerful script speak for itself by keeping the set and props to a minimal. It was Jock Munro’s creative approach as the Set, Lighting & Projection Designer that gave the performance that old time feeling.
The play is set in December leading up to the first Christmas after World War I, however it’s Tommy’s final scene where he makes his last plea to the unknown for a better world that is the purest reminder of what the holiday season is truly all about.
Although many of us may not remember or have experienced this long ago version Ottawa, there is a twinge of resonance that allows anyone who has walked the ByWard Market an opportunity to reminisce about a time they’ve only heard stories about, in a place that is so close to home.
Angel Square plays at the GCTC until December 20th. Tickets start at $15.04 for matinees and $30.98 for evening performances.