There’s not a lot of room in Park Theatre’s second performance space, Park90, to stage a musical, much less one which takes a hike through the mountains of West Virginia and down into a derelict coal mine. But, hey, imagination is your biggest asset when producing theatre.
The Burnt Part Boys is pure Boy’s Own adventure. As I watched it I kept thinking that Steven Spielberg would have loved to have filmed it (in his heyday) as a sequel to The Goonies.
The story of two boys who undertake in a heroic race against time to save the site of a mining disaster that killed their fathers makes good family viewing whether it’s on the stage or screen.
On stage there are obvious drawbacks. Space being the main one. But that hasn’t stopped ambitious director Matthew Iliffe from conjuring up the Stygian gloom of a mineshaft (hence the rather dark production photos).
The audience endures a murky, smoke-hazed auditorium throughout the entire show which, while I’m all for authenticity, did no favours to my asthma. I was still coughing the next morning.
In 1952 a small mining town was devastated when most of their menfolk were killed in a pit disaster. The community had been told that the mine would remain shut, a shrine to those who lost their lives, but, a decade on, plans are now afoot to reopen.
The news hits teen, Pete, hard. He was just four when his dad, the mine foreman, went to work and never returned. All he has is the ghost of someone he barely remembers, built up into a valiant fantasy figure, who regularly appears to him.
Pete is determined to prevent the men’s tomb being disturbed and sets off on a hair-raising journey, accompanied by his reticent, saw-playing sidekick, Dusty (Ryan Heenan adding a refreshing touch of comedy to the play), and a feisty tomboy called Frances (Grace Osborn, fierce and physical). All they needed was a pesky dog in tow to complete the group.
In a town where the only work is down a mine, Pete’s older brother Jake, a father figure to Pete since his distraught mother lost interest, understands the need to get the pit back in business.
Jake and his pal Chet set off in pursuit after finding that Pete has stolen dynamite. With the clock running can they prevent a second tragedy?
It’s all edge of your seat stuff with the tension sustained by ditching the interval in the 90-minute production.
It is accompanied by an impressive score that blends blue grass, country and folk, and powerfully sung by the cast – both dead and alive (yep, we see dead people). The songs are catchy and, in the case of the two clappy Climbing Songs, rather infectious.
Part mythical and surreal, part coming of age drama, this musical play is impeccably performed by a cast of ten.
The quartet of dead miners – played by Danny Black-George, Tomas Wolstenholme, Jonathan Bourne and Jamie Fillery – are heroically portrayed.
Stoic, sturdy, covered in coal dust, they epitomise the strength of spirit of miners and their communities. This may be Pickaway, West Virginia, but it might easily have been set in Abercarn where 268 Welsh miners were killed in an explosion.
Joseph Peacock, as Pete, gives a compelling performance as a teenager trying to come to terms with the loss of his father while Chris Jenkins, playing Jake, and David Leopold, as Chet, are outstanding as young men with limited options in their lives.
David Haydn has a John Wayne moment (and a Davy Crockett one too,) but is largely underused, as Pete’s long lost dad. It’s tough being dead from the outset in a play but he does look wonderfully courageous.
Yes, the story is occasionally sappy, and the outcome inevitable, but you can’t help but be swept up in the melodrama.
The Burnt Part Boys runs at Park Theatre until September 3.
The Burnt Part Boys
The Burnt Part Boys is a compelling adventure about one boy's quest to find his father. Powerfully told & imaginatively staged at London's Park Theatre.