Interview – Matthew Iliffe – up and coming director of The Burnt Part Boys

Matthew Iliffe Up and coming director MATTHEW ILIFFE has taken charge of the European premiere of the Off-Broadway hit musical The Burnt Part Boys at London’s Park90 until 3 September.

Matthew, whose directing credits include last year’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Landor Theatre and Precious Little Talent (Gobstoppers Festival, The Albany) is also the co-founder of new writing thatre company hairofthedog.

His projects include hairofthedog’s inaugural production Stitches (Hen & Chickens Theatre) and the upcoming production of the musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Alma Theatre, Bristol). He will also serve as assistant director to Hannah Chissick on Brass for National Youth Music Theatre at the Hackney Empire later this month.

Musical Theatre Review’s Tal Fox talked to Matthew about his work on Park90’s first musical.

So this is the first ever musical being performed by Park90?

Do I Hear a Waltz? and Thérèse Raquin were staged in the Park Theatre’s 200-seat space, but this is the first musical at Park90.

Why have you decided to take Park90 in the musical direction?

I don’t think the venue had been approached to do a musical like this before, because the 200-seater is a more conventional space for a musical and they’re expensive to put on. The budget lends itself better to a larger space, but producer Effie Stevenson and I thought the 90 venue was more suitable for this piece. It’s more flexible and it allows more creativity when staging the show.

Chris Jenkins in The Burnt Part Boys

Chris Jenkins in The Burnt Part Boys at the Park Theatre. Pictures: Sacha Queiroz

What is it specifically about musical theatre that you enjoy?

It’s such a challenge. It’s a world away from doing a play, especially when you add the musical element. There’s more to play with, like movement and the musical direction. Also the music just elevates the drama if it’s written in the right way and it becomes this hyper dramatic being which I love. There’s a sense of scale in musical theatre, even if it’s just a small scale.

Could you explain what this musical is about?

It’s set in a mining town in West Virgina in 1962. It’s about boys who have lost their fathers in a mining accident the decade previously and the mining company wants to reopen the mines. To protect the honour of the men’s legacy, two young boys set off to destroy what has become known as the Burnt Park so it can’t be reopened. The whole show follows an epic journey up a treacherous mountain-side and it’s a will-they, won’t-they story. It’s about preserving a father’s legacy and about doing what’s right as opposed to what necessarily makes the most sense in terms of economics etc.

It’s been described as a coming-of-age story…

It has a lot of resonances with American coming-of-age stories such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but I think that it also resonates with The Famous Five and those kinds of adventure stories that are part of our English lexicon as well – storytelling for young people.

The way I think it differs is that there are children, aged 13 or 14, who are discovering what it means to be an adult and to defend the things which are important to them. And there’s also these two older boys who are learning, I think quite uniquely, what it is to grow down. They’ve grown up too fast and actually have to take a step back and regress slightly and to find the value in being young again.

Burnt Part Boys resizedIs there a reason that you believe now is a good time to put on this show?

I think now’s the time because it’s never been done in the UK. It premiered at the Playwright Horizons in New York which has the most amazing reputation for being a seed bed for fantastic new musicals. [Nathan} Tysen and [Chris] Miller are undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with in contemporary American writing. The Burnt Part Boys was really well received in New York, although it didn’t do so well commercially.

Their latest show Tuck Everlasting opened on Broadway, and if you listen to the score, it’s really beautiful: intricate harmonies, beautiful bluegrass rhythms and melodies running through their work. So I think they’re very unique and talented voices. The opportunity to present any of their work is a worthwhile one.

What exactly is bluegrass pop for anyone who may not know?

Bluegrass, folk and country is all part of the Southern American musical dialect. Bluegrass is basically those folk harmonies that you associate with Southern America in the 1940s onward and today. I’m a huge lover of that kind of music, so the score resonated with me on that level too. I would say that it’s a bluegrass/folk score, but it’s also a distinctly musical theatre score as well – it has the best of both worlds.

I would say it’s a bit like Floyd Collins but happier, but I’d also compare it to things like Jason Robert Brown’s 13 in terms of its usefulness, drive and energy. At the same time, it’s probably also got vibes of Bridges of Madison County about it, so it’s a hybrid of those, while also being its own unique thing.

Could you tell me a bit about yourself and how you ended up directing this show?

I wanted to be a director since I discovered I loved theatre but couldn’t act very well, which was about five years ago. Since then I trained at the University of Bristol, Stone Grabs Young Directors Training Programme at The Albany in Deptford and on the Bristol Old Vic Young Directors Project while I was at university.

Last year I directed Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Landor Theatre which was my first musical, this is my second one. I’ve done numerous bits of new writing and straight plays, but musical theatre has always been the thing I’ve wanted to do.

L-r Chris Jenkins & Joseph Peacock in The Burnt Part Boys

Chris Jenkins and Joseph Peacock in The Burnt Part Boys

As a young director, it’s quite difficult to get your hands on musicals because they’re so expensive to put on. I had worked with Effie on Thoroughly Modern Millie, so I approached her with this piece because it resonated with me and I thought it was really worth doing. When she took a liking to it as well and the Park was keen, it was hugely exciting. I think the Park is a great venue for it and now is a great time to see this show.

Just going back to Thoroughly Modern Millie… it’s quite a big stage musical, so how was it adapting it for a smaller stage?

It was difficult. I’m really proud of some of the stuff that we achieved on Thoroughly Modern Millie, but in retrospect I don’t think that it was necessarily the right show to bring to the smaller stage. I think The Burnt Part Boys is though.

That show really relied on spectacle for the quality of the material, to make it work, whereas The Burnt Part Boys is extraordinary in terms that it works on a small scale because the strength of the material is what guides it, not production value.

Obviously it’s quite epic, they’re going on a journey for 90 minutes on this epic terrain and we have ten actors and a minimal set. It’s a very exciting process working collaboratively with this company to work out the best way to tell this story. So I think this show lends itself better to this treatment than Thoroughly Modern Millie did, but I am still very proud of what we achieved with Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Grace Osborn 2 in The Burnt Part Boys

Grace Osborn in The Burnt Part Boys

Do you prefer smaller venues to larger ones?

No, actually I work in studio theatres as a necessity because I’m still up and coming and that’s where you start off. I adore huge, epic work. Nick Hytner’s work at the Olivier, that’s the kind of scale I would like to work on. But I think while I’m at this stage the studio theatres I’m working with are extraordinary and they offer different insights. I also think that it’s harder to do it in a studio space, because there’s nowhere to hide. The material is exposed, the actors are exposed and even the technical elements are exposed, so it’s a great training ground for young directors.

What can you tell me about the cast you’re working with?

They’re great. Chris Jenkins leads the company as Jake – obviously he’s a great musical theatre actor, but I think that this is a fantastic dramatic role for him as well. Then we have an extraordinary young man called Joseph Peacock who is also leading the company as Pete, Jake’s younger brother. He’s a real find, he’s sparky and has the most wonderful voice – so it’s special for me to work with those two. Larger than that, we’ve got a company of really committed, talented musical theatre actors, and that’s what I love about this ensemble, they’re real actors. I think the quality of acting in this piece is really strong which you don’t always see in musicals.

What is the unique selling point of this show, why should people come see it?

It’s a tough question because for me there are so many reasons why I love it. I think that The Burnt Park Boys is unique, as in there is nothing in London right now quite like it. The staging is not literal and it asks something of the audience in terms of imagination.

In that way I compare it to John Doyle’s work which has been a huge influence on me and, indeed, Peter Brook’s work, if we’re going back. It’s the strongest material and it’s in Park90 which is the loveliest venue. The top price for this show is £18 and if you’re a young person you can go for £15.

Is there anyone specific you’d like to work with?

Emma Williams. I think she’s the most wonderful musical theatre performer, I’d love to work with her in particular, and of course The Burnt Part Boys company.

Readers may also be interested in:

The Burnt Part Boys – Park Theatre – Review


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