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theatre review

Byron Allen and Lindsey Angell play a couple whose romance begins cheerily, but is complicated in Liberation Days.

On a visit to Ireland when I was a teenager, my family ran into a choir on a trip from the Netherlands at some tourist site or another in County Cork.

While I can't remember the details of the place, it's impossible to forget what happened when these Dutch singers happened to hear that my grandfather had been in the Canadian army in the Second World War. They thanked him for his service – and then formed a line so each could shake his hand, one after the other.

That was the first I'd ever heard of the role Canada played in the liberation of the Netherlands from its brutal Nazi occupation. If the Dutch don't need to be reminded of this shared history, Canadians, as always, could use a refresher.

A new play premiering at Theatre Calgary will provide young audiences an opportunity to see why Ottawa gets that shipment of tulips every year play out right in front of them – and may complicate an older audience's understanding of this feel-good chapter of our military past.

Written by David van Belle, a Calgary-based playwright of Dutch descent whose grandparents emigrated here because they were impressed by Canadian soldiers, Liberation Days is not without shades of grey.

It begins cheerily enough, at the end of the fighting in a small village in the eastern Netherlands. Private Alex King (Byron Allen) links eyes with a local Dutch woman named Emma de Bruijn (Lindsey Angell, giving a wrenching but restrained performance) – and soon starts showing up at her house to do handy work.

The influx of Canadian soldiers into a town of starving, sometimes desperate women and mostly absent young men creates tension between Alex's commanding officer Miles Cavendish (the charming Garett Ross) and a local minister named van Egmond (Duval Lang). There certainly was cause for concern – our troops left behind an estimated 6,000 "children of the Liberation." Only around 2,000 Dutch women would marry Canadian soldiers, however – and the official position of Canada's government was that they wouldn't force fathers to take responsibility.

In van Belle's play, Alex and Emma's romance is additionally complicated by the fact that her she is engaged to the minister's son, Jan – who has been missing since he was dispatched to a forced-labour camp by the Germans two years earlier.

It doesn't take a dramaturge to guess that this MIA fiancé will return to ramp up the drama at some point. At times, Liberation Days feels overfamiliar, right from its cliché-ridden opening monologue – "In the little Dutch village where I grew up…" – recited in front of a montage of projected photographs of Hitler and concentration camps.

Director Daryl Cloran's staging relies heavily on a long treadmill that pulls actors on and off or lets them walk without moving, a redundant piece of stage technology that has become de rigeur in musical theatre. Indeed, Liberation Days can often feel like a musical without songs; General Cavendish even wanders on at one point in a wig and a bra as if he's just finished doing the Honey Bun number from South Pacific.

But if the play begins superficially with light gags about how Canadians eat corn but the Dutch eat kale, van Belle's characters become more complex in the second act, where the terror of the war is given its due weight and Cloran elicits nuanced performances from his female actors in particular.

As a counterpoint cautionary tale to Emma's romance, there's Marijke (Kelsey Gilker) who fell in love with a German during the previous occupation. Her head has been shaved and tarred as a punishment – and her interactions with drunken Canadians are not romantic at all. (The Germans may be absent from the stage, but provide the soundtrack for the story in the form of a stack of Beethoven records that Cavendish's Nazi predecessor left behind.)

Even the naive, Western Canadian boy is allowed a little nuance, when Alex confesses he's not sure when he risked his life to "save one bunch of blond, blue-eyed people from another bunch of blond, blue-eyed people."

Van Belle's script came out of a call by Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum in 2007 for new plays big enough to fill his 750-seat theatre.

If Canada's regional theatres lean heavily on imported fare and classics for their A-houses, it's in part because Canadian plays are often nurtured by and written for smaller theatres. Our playwrights don't pen a lot of sweeping wartime romances that can fill a commercial-sized house – and so it's worth celebrating this one, another liberation from foreign occupation.

Liberation Days continues until Nov. 9.