The stage is set beautifully. A gathering of men, singing to the sky, tell of the distant depths they travel to for their work, and their hopes of returning to the surface to see the sun once again. After this powerful opening, the next few scenes didn’t quite live up to what was promised at the outset. There were a few hurried lines, a song where the characters were drunk, some overwrought emotions that seemed out-of-place at the outset of a show. Either way, the opening of the performance didn’t quite gel, and I was a little concerned that it would not live up to the high praise it found in the US. However, it turned out that all we had to do was wait a little, to see the full beauty of the performance come to life.
We find ourselves in Virginia in 1962. Ten years ago, a tragic mining accident killed many local men, leaving a scar on the town beneath. Jake and Chet are bound to the same fate as their fathers, finding their working lives down in the mines, and replacing the fathers that were killed. Pete, Jake’s younger brother, is more idealistic, and saturated in tales of the Alomo, John Wayne and Davy Crockett. When the news reaches him that the old mine that was the scene of the tragedy will be reopened, he takes it as his personal mission to preserve the sacred ground these men once walked upon, to leave them resting in their dark graves. Accompanying him is Dusty, a trusted friend who keenly feels the guilt that his own father did not meet the fate of so many others.
The young boys set off on a journey to try to maintain the sanctity of the men’s deaths. Along the way they meet Frances, a scrappy girl who chose to run off into the woods rather than be tainted with the association of her alcoholic mother and the shame left behind by father. It’s worth noting that Grace Osborn’s vocals are an impressive counterpoint, especially in the scenes where the whole company sing. Behind them come the older boys, more keenly aware of the new responsibilities that are facing them. Together, they find themselves searching for the Burnt Part, the last resting place of so many men.
Behind this young cast are the dead miners. They rise up from the grave, telling their stories and weaving their voices with the young people, uniting them in a common goal. At the points where all the cast were joined on stage, these were the most poignant and vocally subtle, with close harmonies and melodic lines veering in unexpected directions, leading to truly moving moments.
The style of the music is ultimately country music, but with a lighter touch. We hear rhythms of folk and bluegrass, each part of it rooting the experience of the men in the earth. Perhaps the most poignant was set up as the song that the children sang about the ‘Burnt Part Boys,’ with body percussion used to give the piece real depth and beat.
From a narrative perspective, the arrival of Frances (Grace Osborn) onto the set is a welcome relief from what felt like a little too much male posturing, and she brought humour and light into what could have been an overly dark performance. Joseph Peacock, as Pete, impressed with his impressive vocal range yet vulnerable voice, beautifully complimented by Ryan Heenan as Dusty. I found Chris Jenkins’ performance a little limited, in that he was very angry for the majority of the play. This may well have been down to the writing, as I felt he wasn’t really given enough subtlety to play with, and as a result seemed a little shallow emotionally. Jamie Fillery, Jonathan Bourne, Tomas Wolstehholme and Danny Black-George provide the eerie yet somehow comforting voices of the dead miners, while David Haydn veers from genuine humour to heartfelt loss as the manifestations of Pete’s young mind.
With missing fathers, broken dreams and a search for redemption, there is always the possibility of things becoming just a little bit cheesy. However, this musical managed to steer the fine line between slush and emotion, and I found myself genuinely moved by the characters and their journeys, both physical and emotional. It’s almost as if it crept up on me, tapping me on the shoulder and telling me how much I cared.
Which captures the essence of the show. Here we have men as they used to be. Tough, hardworking and dedicated, they gave themselves over to the work they had to do in order to provide for the future generation. But underpinning it all is a softness that seems at odds with their rough exteriors. A group of men who were proud of their children, who dreamed of better things for them, and who took joy in their emotional relationships with their families. Above all, this is what resonates.
After an initially shaky start, this musical offers warmth, vocal complexity and a genuinely moving story. With haunting voices and blackened faces, The Burnt Part Boys is a play that will resonate with you long after you leave the theatre.