Park Theatre, London – until 3 September 2016
In the first musical to be staged at Park 90, the Park Theatre’s smaller space, The Burnt Part Boys proves to be one of the finest examples of Off West End musical theatre.
The tale is a simple premise. Ten years after a Texan mine disaster killed a team of miners whose bodies were never recovered, the mining company announce that scene of the tragedy is to be re-opened for exploiting. Pete, the young son of one of the dead men is distraught at the idea of his father’s grave being treated so sacrilegiously and sets off to dynamite what remains of the seam and frustrate the company’s plan.
It is the ingenious and credible way in which Elder, Miller and Tysen thread some of humanity’s most raw emotions through their text that makes this musical so strong. Not only Pete, there are his friends, his brother (now a miner himself) and appearing at times through the show, a haunting ensemble of the ghosts of five dead miners, robbed of their families who in turn were robbed of their husbands and fathers.
Not only a strong libretto, the show under Matthew Iliffe’s direction, is also staged perfectly. Rarely has a stage set of such stark simplicity (suspended ropes and lanterns setting the scene alongside a handful of chairs – bravo designer Rachel Wingate) worked so imaginatively alongside flawless performance work. Through their performances alone the cast convey us over rivers, along precipitous ledges and deep into mineshaft caves.
All ten actors are magnificent. Joseph Peacock’s Pete is a masterclass in youth, conveying not only the impetuousness of his age, but also a fierceness of passionate devotion to his dead father. Heenan is his young friend Dusty who also turns in a neat tune on the saw. As Frances, a girl of Pete’s age who also lost her father and ran off into the hills, Grace Osborn is a revelation. Osborn is completely convincing as a feisty yet tender hillbilly. There is memorable work too from Chris Jenkins as older brother Jake and David Haydn as the enigmatic fantasy creation of Pete’s imagination and the ghost of his father, with gorgeous vocal harmonies from all.
Nick Barstow’s musical direction is masterful. In an environment that has had its sound designed excellently by Philip Matejtschuk, Barstow’s 5 piece band which could so easily dominate the compact space in fact create the perfect Texan sound. Katherine Robb’s fiddle playing is exquisite while Felix Stickland’s guitar work (and, hurrah, an occasional burst of banjo too) offering up moments that suggest a hint of Ry Cooder.
If ever a show deserved a transfer or extension this is it. The Burnt Part Boys is perceptive and exciting, with a denouement that is as unexpected as it is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Exceptional, unmissable musical theatre.
Runs until 3rd September