It’s all too easy, particularly right now, to look down on small-town Republican America. But it’s important to remember that, just as forgotten English pensioners grow misty-eyed at any mention of ration books, isolationist Americans are motivated by their own powerful mythologies too. And The Burnt Part Boys, Mariana Elder, Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen’s folksy new musical about young hillbillies in a rural West Virginia mining town, paints about as appealing a picture of conservative America as you can comfortable with. Matthew Iliffe’s production – the piece’s European premiere – in the Park Theatre’s 90-seat studio is imaginatively staged and entirely absorbing.
In 1962, US forces were becoming heavily involved in Vietnam, JFK was hyping up the space race at Rice University, and the Civil Rights movement was changing the face of the world’s most powerful country. In Pickaway, West Virginia, though, none of that matters. All that matters is the legacy of a group of men killed in a mining tragedy ten years ago; a group of men still buried in a collapsed shaft known as the ‘Burnt Part’.
Over an hour and a half, through a soul-stirring medley of country, folk and bluegrass, Elder, Miller and Tysen tell the story of Pete (Joseph Peacock) and Jake (Chris Jenkins), two brothers whose father died in the Burnt Part. Jake, the elder of the two, has been forced to give up hopes of college in order to support his family by working down the mines. Pete, a bright-eyed high-schooler, dreams of nothing but John Wayne in The Alamo. When Jake’s mining company decides to renege on their word and reopen the Burnt Part, Pete is just as determined to protect the grave of his father as Jake is to prevent him from doing so.
What follows is a recognisable American story: brother clashing with brother, against a backdrop of heavy, family-oriented emotion and an evocative score of slide guitar and snare drum. Part Enid Blyton story (if Enid Blyton had been writing about rural West Virginia), part corny coming-of-age Hollywood drama (there’s distinct shades of Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club), The Burnt Park Boys is a heady cocktail of adolescence, adventure and yodelling that Hank Williams would be proud of.
Iliffe’s production, staged in the round, serves it well with an intelligent design and some inventive direction. Peacock is an admirable Pete, capturing an earnest naivety that contrasts well with the world-weariness of Jenkins’ strapping, able-bodied Jake. Ryan Heenan is tidy as Pete’s timorous, ‘marshmallow’ friend, the Samwise to Pete’s Frodo. David Leopold is Jake’s oafish but ultimately loveable buddy Chet. There’s good work too from Grace Osborn as Frances, a troubled schoolgirl gone feral, and David Haydn, who multi-roles entertainingly as the ghosts of a variety of classic Southern heroes, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and James Bowie among them.
Rachel Wingate’s sparse set is cloaked in a thick, smoky haze. Although this pea-souper is far too heavy, it’s still just about possible to make out the cast working hard to create fences, bridges, rivers and mountains from just four chairs and a few lengths of rope. All is softly lit by Charlie Morgan Jones, and with Nick Barstow’s five-piece band churning out Chris Miller’s score stylishly from the corner, one can almost see John Denver’s country roads waiting to take him home.
True, the cast probably aren’t as vocally polished as they could be, but this imperfection lends most numbers a rugged charm that adds to the atmosphere, rather than detracting from it. This is particularly the case in ‘Family Tree’ and ‘I Made That’, two swinging, harmonized paeans to the simple life that are almost evocative enough to make you buy a plane ticket to Charleston. Nope, the production’s main problem is that it’s just too big a musical for such a small space. With a cast of ten and only a few square metres to work in, Iliffe’s production often feels cluttered, and sightlines are frequently impeded.
The Burnt Part Boys is the first musical ever staged in Park90, and although it is hindered somewhat by its own ambition, it also offers an unexpectedly moving window onto a gentler, more innocent America than the one we know and fear today.
The Burnt Part Boys is on until 3rd September 2016. Click here for more information.