This is both the European premiere of an off-Broadway show and the first musical ever to be staged in the Park90 theatre. It's quite a bold choice. The north London theatre can hardly be accused of taking the easy path of glitz and ingratiation in mounting a piece about the emotional legacy of a mining disaster in West Virginia. It's palpably a labour of love, though, for director Matthew Iliffe and the cast of this SDWC production who sing with resonant, full-throated fervour the attractive bluegrass-flavoured score by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen. A shame, then, that the story meanders and sags as drama.
Set in 1962, the piece focuses on two brothers and the divergent ways they’ve coped since their father and several other miners died in an accident 10 years before. These differences come to a head when it’s announced that the company plans to reopen the mine where the bones of the men still lie. For 14-year-old Pete (Joseph Peacock), this would be the desecration of a shrine. Head full of the heroics of The Alamo, his favourite John Wayne film, he steals some dynamite, recruits his best buddy Dusty (Ryan Heenan) and sets off up the mountain on a mission to ensure that his father's grave site remains sacred. For the 18-year-old Jake (Chris Jenkins), who has had to shoulder the burden of family responsibility since their mother retreated into grief, the reopening means both promotion and the sting of Pete’s contempt and ingratitude. Once they discover the theft of the explosives, Jake and his pal Chet (David Leopold) head out in anxious pursuit of the youngsters.
Peacock touchingly conveys the ardour and naivety of Pete’s filial yearning for “something I can do/For the man I never knew”; Jenkins gives impressively turbulent voice to Jake's conflicted feelings about his fore-ordained role as a coal-miner. Contrastingly, it’s a coming-of-age story and a drama about the painful rediscovery of one's stolen youth. The trouble with this 90-minute piece, though, is that while the quest involves much mimed physical activity (adroitly executed by the cast with ropes and chairs in this spare chamber-production), we're kept waiting too long for any real dramatic development. Pete's fantasy encounters with Alamo figures, such as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, and his enlistment of a runaway tomboy (Frances) are entertaining enough but hardly serve to build up any sense of momentum.
Though there is an overall effect of sameness, the score – with its soaring harmonies and stirring anthems – occasionally makes the scalp tingle, however. There’s a chorus of ghostly miners who infiltrate the piece. They kick off the proceedings with a rapturous hymn “God's eyes shown down on me” and are heard swapping boastful stories about their infants in the heart-tugging “I Made That” during the somewhat contrived redemptive merger of present and past at the end. Under the musical direction of the Nick Barstow, the cast and the five-piece band sound rousingly true to the “country” idiom.
To 3 September; 020 7870 6876
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