Journeying through Havelock on any given day, it’s difficult to fathom the sleepy village east of Peterborough was the scene of so much excitement close to 55 years ago.
But great excitement there was indeed, as five men robbed the Toronto-Dominion Bank of more than $230,000 in cash and securities before making good their getaway. All were subsequently apprehended and arrested within a few days, and then put on trial, the result being the convictions of four (one of the five men died of a heart-related ailment during the trial).
And the stolen loot? Well, it hasn’t been found, its whereabouts a mystery that has endured and continues to fascinate. What’s not a mystery more than five decades later is 4th Line Theatre’s decision to restage The Bad Luck Bank Robbers this summer at the Winslow Farm near Millbrook.
Premiered to great acclaim and sold-out audiences last summer, the fast-paced comedy, written by Alex Poch-Goldin — he also penned 4th Line’s widely successful The Right Road To Pontypool — and directed by longtime 4th Line Theatre managing artistic director Kim Blackwell, The Bad Luck Bank Robbers all the required elements: the intense robbery as it played out on August 31, 1961; the subsequent comedic angst and bunglings of its perpetrators; the urgency of police as the search for the suspects is undertaken amid an atmosphere of local community paranoia; and the courtroom drama that brought convictions solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence — a first at the time on the Canadian judiciary landscape.
According to Blackwell, remounting the play was as close to a no-brainer as you can get. She points to the “the buzz” last summer’s inaugural run created.
“What we were hearing about (The Bad Luck) Bank Robbers is just how fun people thought it was; how much they loved the bank robbers,” Blackwell says.
“Comedy is so technically challenging. It is, in some ways, a very, very hard play to do. The bank robbery scene is almost 30 minutes long and it’s so technically specific as to where everybody is.”
With The Bad Luck Bank Robbers being staged on the heels of 4th Line’s season-opening drama The Hero of Hunter Street — which recounts the 1916 explosion and fire at the Quaker Oats factory in Peterborough — Blackwell welcomes the opportunity “to do something light,” adding, “They are such a sharp contrast to each other. If you were going to experience a season of theatre at 4th Line, this is a great season to experience.”
Reprising his portrayal of Jean Claude Lalonde (one of the robbers) is stage, film, and television actor Paul Braunstein.
“This is a heck of a story,” enthuses the Dora Award-nominated actor.
“It was not only a local story. It was also a national story. At that time, it was the largest single-day heist in Canadian history and so it was a big deal. Some people who were involved, who were at the bank (during the robbery), came to the show last year. That just really points out the immediacy of the story and how recent it is in a way. It was 1961 but for a lot of living people, they remember it happening.”
“The story we’re telling is true but the details are exaggerated,” Braunstein adds. “I have no idea how much I like that man (Lalonde) because there’s no actual record of the man’s behavior.”
That challenge aside, Braunstein admits to “a real joy” playing his role.
“You can feel a connection to the audience in a different way,” he explains.
“When you’re doing a piece of fiction that stands alone as a piece of art unto itself, it might not have any immediate resonance with the audience other than we’re all human beings and a good story told is a good story told in any form or shape. It’s really exciting to be part of something like this, where you feel there’s a real sense of ownership from the audience. For a lot of people who come, it might be their only theatre experience but they feel really connected to it.”
Noting his affinity for the 4th Line Theatre atmosphere — “I fish in that creek over there … you can’t fish at Tarragon (Theatre in Toronto)” — Braunstein draws particular satisfaction from working with the community actors among the play’s 28-member cast.
“To see people doing it (act) simply because they love it, who work hard and show up and don’t complain and end up being fantastic in the show, is an amazing reminder of why we’re doing this in the first place,” he says.
“This is my career but if you don’t have what they’re bringing to the table, then don’t even bother.”
Monica Dottor, who played dual lead roles in The Hero of Hunter Street and portrays a lovably ditzy café waitress in this play, is on same page as Braunstein, noting the chance to work with community actors “captures the magic that I felt when I was a young girl doing community theatre.”
As for the play itself, she agrees that restaging it is a smart move.
“There are still so many people who haven’t seen it and people who want to see it again,” she assesses.
“We knew it was a great, funny script that Alex had written. He really believed in it and we really believed in the possibilities of it. Kim (Blackwell) was so wonderful. She brought it all together. We had a great time doing it.”
It doesn’t hurt matters that Dottor’s husband, Ryan Hollyman, also stars in the production (he also starred as the narrator in The Hero of Hunter Street) and they’re enjoying the company of their son Arlo during their Millbrook stay. It is, as she puts it, “a family affair.”
One big change from last year’s staging is that 4th Line Theatre founder and creative director Robert Winslow isn’t involved. Last summer saw him portray one of the bank robbers. This summer, with professional actor John Tench in the fold, sees him taking very rare time off from acting to work full-time on new script development and other behind-the-scene projects. Winslow says watching another portray the role he knows so well isn’t as difficult as one might think.
“It’s difficult in your imagination — ‘Oh, how am I going to feel when I watch someone else playing the part’ — but when I stood there and watched rehearsal, I was fine with it,” Winslow says.
“There’s a different take on the character. He’ll do it his way, which has nothing to do with what I did. It’s instructive. But I don’t hang around and watch (rehearsals) too much. I don’t get in there and give my two cents on anything. One day I’ll write a play called Phantom of 4th Line and lurk in the barns and stuff.”
As for the play’s 2015 success, Winslow isn’t surprised.
“It’s local history but if you have two sides of the scale, local history on one side and comedy on the other side, I think this would tip up to the comedy .. whereas (The Hero of) Hunter Street was so much about the local story, the community history.”
“(The Bad Luck) Bank Robbers is more like what you might expect to come to see in a typical summer theatre setting, where you just want to laugh. There’s a kind of comic satiric take that Alex has in his writing that is very funny. Those are the parts that carry people through their enjoyment of the play.”
With both Braunstein and Dottor noting that 4th Line Theatre is gaining a solid reputation with actors based in Toronto and elsewhere, Winslow remains protective of maintaining what he envisioned 25 years ago and has nurtured ever since.
“I’ve got nothing against big-time actors and talent and skill, but if that turned into completely eliminating what this place is in terms of its community connection and the commitment to local stories, that would be a problem,” he says.
“Stories are our myths. That’s how we define ourselves. Our work is not so much just promoting those myths but criticizing them; under those myths that society uses to develop itself and survive.”
“4th Line has this great opportunity to tell the history and to really look at it critically,” Winslow continues. “If that’s gone, we would lose. I would probably be upset. If you’re just recreating history for the sake of pure entertainment or ‘Rah, rah, weren’t we a great bunch of people?’, well, it’s more complex; what happened versus what was said to have happened.”
“That’s a lot to try to accomplish for a theatre company whereas most (companies) are ‘let’s just get bums in seats, let’s just entertain the folks’. We’re more than that. That’s why we have the attendance, I think.”
Featuring original music composed by musical director Justin Hiscox, The Bad Luck Bank Robbers opens on August 2 and continues to August 27. Curtain is 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with an added Monday performance on August 22.
Tickets can be purchased by phone at 705-932-4445, online at www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca or in person at the box office, 4 Tupper St. in Millbrook or at the Peterborough Museum and Archives atop Armour Hill in Peterborough.