Writer: Jack Thorne
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: Tim Wright
Jack Thorne’s star is very high in the sky indeed. After numerous screen writing credits and the runaway success of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on stage in London, it’s with no small level of anticipation that his latest work Junkyard arrives in Bristol. Assembled alongside Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin to direct and Stephen Warbeck to compose, it’s a heavyweight creative team.
Set in the late 70s (with the flared trousers to match) Junkyard is the story of building an adventure playground in inner-city Bristol with a bunch of kids who are not exactly excelling in mainstream school. Rick is a passionate teacher, determined to show these kids that, out of this bundle of wood and scraps, something meaningful can be created. They on the other hand, think he’s a prick and tell him so in a wonderfully direct Bristolian way.
Thorne’s upbringing in Bristol is evident in his dialogue here. The Bristol crowd enjoy the local references and the kids speaking with the vocabulary you’d expect. They’re not patronised or dumbed down and that’s a tricky balance to strike that Thorne does with aplomb.
This is not your usual West End musical fare. The songs here flow in and out of the dialogue effortlessly and add subtle depth and warmth to the characters. Crucially, Thorne keeps the characters in their vernacular – to hell with a rhyme scheme, there is truth here that is worth so much more. Warbeck’s score plays easily with more than a few subtle nods to ska and 2-tone.
Helping the songs along is a cast who can blend easily out of speaking and singing. Erin Doherty as Fiz is a deliciously direct and forthright kid who is unaware how profound some of her ideas are. Meanwhile, Enyi Okoronkwo’s fragile and timid boy Talc never loses his innocence. Josef Davies gets most of the laughs as soft in the middle Ginger who struggles to stay out of the shadow of his violent older brother.
Jeremy Herrin directs with great sensitivity, he knows when to fill the stage and when to leave a character alone. The stage itself is littered with all those types of things that delight kids and big kids alike- frames to climb, tyres to jump on and things to slide down. Herrin uses it to great effect yet, somehow, designer Chiara Stephenson misses the opportunity to really show the creation of this playground. Yes, some things are built before us but most isn’t. It fails to capture the spirit of building and seeing the fruits of your labour.
At it’s heart, the play poses a question about how do you help kids not suited to mainstream education? As the kids say themselves – maths isn’t going to help them, but building something might. The kids term themselves as “junk” doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents or siblings. As Talc pleads “we need to know the playground didn’t mean nothing, otherwise we mean nothing”.
Runs until 18 March 2017 and then tours | Image: Mark Douet