JC’s THEATRE SPOTLIGHT - Tompkinsville

Tompkinsville … the true Cape Breton mining tale that’ll grab you by the feels

DON’T READ THE PLAYBILL before you see this show.  I don’t want to be a spoiler here, but if you read the program, even during the intermission, you’ll miss out on the coolest of theatrical “twists” to ever grab you.  Trust me.  But that twist was maybe the fifth time I found myself biting back tears at Tompkinsville, a brilliant new production of Eastern Front Theatre playing Neptune Theatre’s Scotiabank Stage until December 3rd.

The play is a musical docu-drama set in Reserve Mines, Cape Breton, in the 1920s and ‘30s.  The characters are all as real as their story is gritty.  A real life, truly Nova Scotian story of grass roots courage in the face of “The Man”.  Tompkinsville isn’t just another story of Cape Breton miners uniting against their employer.  It’s an unheralded tale of everyday people struggling to feed their families, who showed the world a new way to care for their community.  Thanks to a plan championed by the unstoppable spirit of the local parish priest, Father Jimmy Tompkins.  And the world took notice.  It’s such a cool story, you’ll think … this can’t be true.  But it is.  And the connections run very deep in this super emotional show … but again, I don’t want to spoil it for ya!

The performance is built around a musical narrative written by local singer-songwriter, Ian Sherwood.  Lyrically dense, Sherwood’s songs envelop the show and propel the story at a good clip.  Several times, he weaves lines of dialogue into the songs to good effect.

The acting is terrific throughout, although on opening night the cast was still nailing down their lines, stutter-starting several times but never blowing a line altogether, and it didn’t bog the show down at all.  Presumably those signs of early jitters will be smoothed out along the way. 

A nod to cast member, Ian Gilmore, whom I worked with at Dartmouth Players in Stephen Sondheim’s Company (2015).  Ian directed the choreography on that show, and had been out of theatre for about 7 years.  I didn’t realize what a talented actor Gilmore is, and have since seen him in two productions.  He shines here as “Dancin’ Archie Devison”, a heavy-drinkin’, coal mining union militant who demonstrates a wide range, as his attempt to booze away the hardships of mining life run into a tragic roadblock.

It’s the theatre next door to A Miracle On 34th Street, but before you get whisked away to 1940s New York City for the seasonal pick-me-up in Fountain Hall, get yourself connected to a slice of our own history with Tompkinsville … I have a feeling this one will move you even more than the Miracle next door.