The Burnt Part Boys***** (Park Theatre)

Posted: August 29, 2016 in Theatre

burnt part

In terms of geography, the distance between small town Pennsylvania and the West Virginia mountains may not be too great, but, in theatrical terms, Groundhog Day (set in the former) and this show (the latter) could hardly be further apart. The high production values of the show at the Old Vic linger in the memory, but this imagination of a vast outdoor landscape in a bare 90-seat studio space in Finsbury Park is, in a very different way, equally stunning. Seeing two brilliant new musicals in the same week, I must have done something right for a change.

This is the European premiere of an Off-Briadway hit set in 1962. Mariana Elder’s book tells the story  of two teenagers who lost their father in a mining accident ten years earlier. The older, Jake (Chris Jenkins) has taken on the role of family breadwinner and plans to go to work in the mine when it reopens, but the younger, 14-year-old Pete (Joseph Peacock) plans to blow up the mine so that it remains a permanent shrine. With his reluctant friend Dusty (Ryan Heenan, the show’s strongest singer), Pete sets off on a trek through the mountains to the mine, picking up town outcast, the feral Frances (Grace Osborn) on the way. Jake and his friend Chet (David Leopold) set off in pursuit.

Terrific performances from five talented young actors are at the heart of Matthew Iliffe’s thrilling production, but the more senior David Haydn also impresses as the John Wayne-like embodiment of heroic figures from American legends, as pictured in Pete’s mind. The staging relies heavily on audience imagination, as the characters clamber up mountains, crawl though tunnels and slide along precipices, the actors using only ropes, a few chairs and their miming skills.

The songs (music Chris Miller, lyrics Nathan Tyson) are broadly in the Bluegrass style, with a little rock thrown in, and they work perfectly in the context of the show’s setting and in driving the narrative. The story builds to a Field of Dreams type climax that is numbingly touching and rounds off a production that is small but near-perfectly formed. There’s a gem in them thar hills.

Performance date: 25 August 2016

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