The Burnt Part Boys is an emotionally wrought and gripping coming-of-age tale. Centred on the taut relationship between two brothers, Pete and Jake, it is an unapologetic look at what it means to suffer loss, and whether that loss can ever truly be overcome.
Packed to the brim with raw human experience; loss, disconnection, friendship, family, love, trust, anger, revenge, the story follows the adventure of protagonist Pete and his best friend, Dusty as they climb to the ‘burnt part’ of a mine. Ten years ago, a tragic explosion claimed the lives of a group of miners, including Pete and Jake’s father. Their bodies still lie beneath the ‘burnt part’, and their legacy hangs over the small West Virginia mining town.
The most striking aspect of the play is the sheer talent of all the principal actors. The entire ensemble is clearly well rehearsed – no doubt thanks to director Matthew Iliffe and musical director Nick Barstow. But there is an undeniable magic when a cast of stars comes together. And The Burnt Part Boys glitters with that magic.
Joseph Peacock portrays Pete with an alarmingly detailed characterisation for a pre-drama school actor. From the confidence with which Peacock tackles not only musical numbers but also the intimacy of a confessionary conversation with Dusty, to the purposeful physicality, Peacock is a standout actor. His performance is mesmerising and carries a certain nostalgia which pervades the play, resulting in the audience itself yearning for his late father as he does.
The friendship between Pete and Dusty (Ryan Heenan) adds a refreshing layer of naïve optimism, strong friendship, and uplifting hilarity. Heenan captivates the audience with his nuanced portrayal of the slightly shy and misunderstood Dusty. He manages to stray from the clichéd ‘best friend syndrome’ by stepping out of Pete’s shadow into his own spotlight with an endless supply of witty and endearing jokes (‘it puts the poo in spooky’ has got to be my favourite). Heenan’s commitment to his character is evident from his performance, which, combined with Peacock, is reminiscent of the strong but tense friendships of another American coming-of-age tale, Stand by Me.
The production uses the small space to its advantage. A five-piece band helps the play to swell with emotion; mixing country, folk and bluegrass to conjure up the setting. From the opening musical number, the band were utterly mesmerising. Director Iliffe was also tactful with staging; two entrances/exits for the actors with minimal set and props was a slick decision – but only for a forward-thinking and meticulous director. Impressively, Iliffe managed to create a multitude of settings (home, river, forest, mine) with carefully chosen props and staging. The mark of a truly imaginative creative team.
The Burnt Part Boys is the most unusual musical I have seen. But it holds the most important element of any performance which truly draws people in; real, raw emotion. There is no pretence, no farce – just the honest adventure of one boy as he climbs to the burnt part.
The Burnt Part Boys is playing at Park Theatre until September 3.