Jack Thorne's Junkyard: how I turned an adventure playground into a musical

Junk playgrounds had sheer drops, death-defying rope swings and were always being set on fire. The playwright explains why he has written a show about these chaotic spaces and the kids who built them

My dad recently retired after 50 years of public service. In that time, he wore many hats: treasurer of this, secretary of that, chairman of this, agitator of that. He was a town planner, teacher, playgroup leader and union organiser. He worked in council offices, community centres, citizens advice bureaux and, most recently, on a roundabout renovation.

One thing was a constant: he always worked for the public good. We grew up without much money but were never short when it came to having things of importance thrust into our heads. We went on marches, protests and holidays to union conferences in Blackpool and Bournemouth. He always expected big things of us and was never shy of saying so.

A young boy tackles a commando rope.
A young boy tackles a commando rope. Photograph: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

Having recently become a father, I’ve found myself thinking about my dad, and about how the choices I’ve made don’t measure up to his contributions to the world. But I’ve also found myself thinking about the weird bits, chief among them the junk playground he built with some kids at Lockleaze school in Bristol. We used to visit it regularly, particularly on Fireworks Night, when we’d sit on flimsy flammable structures while playing with fire, or go off eating hot dogs. I didn’t really see the point of it. I always saw him as a serious man and a playground just seemed so silly. But the more I investigated, the more appealing the slightly pirate world of these adventure playgrounds seemed.

They were set up by a woman called Lady Allen. “There is no asphalt,” she once said, explaining their difference, “no seesaws, swings or slides, except those created by the children themselves out of waste material freely available on the site – or by the terrain of the playground itself”. These outreach schemes were meant to encourage creativity and inventiveness, and to give children a taste of manual labour.

There are still quite a few dotted about. A mass of broken wood, disused car tyres and concrete tubes, they usually involve sheer drops, death-defying rope swings, and look like they’ve been set on fire a couple of times (they generally have). They’re always built and designed by the kids themselves, and they change every year or so, to reflect the current intake. In a world of health and safety, they are a haven of anarchy.

In Junkyard, my new musical inspired by these playgrounds, the kids are led by a man called Rick from Walthamstow. Back then, my dad was Mick from Walthamstow (although he now goes by Mike). But Junkyard is not about my dad. Despite him thinking he features punishingly in everything I write, I lack both the tools and the inclination to write a theatrical biography.

playwright Jack Thorne.
Window into kids’ lives … playwright Jack Thorne. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Rather, it’s an attempt to walk the high wire he walked – and to tell the truth about the type of kids who built these playgrounds, the places they come from, the lives they lead. These are the kids no one else wants – who’ll attack you, abuse you, accuse you and make you feel like shit, because no one in authority has ever reached them. It’s those kids and that relationship I wanted to capture.

Because of that, right from the start, the director Jeremy Herrin and I were adamant that it shouldn’t be a Mr Chips-style story, where a knight comes in and makes everyone’s lives better. That’s not how these things work: with kids like these, there’s a constant threat of darkness just around the corner. I have worked in outreach as well (far less successfully than my dad) and know that it’s about failure as much as success.

It was for that reason we decided to write it as a musical, my first. They’re odd beasts, musicals, but what I like about them is the way they allow windows into people’s lives. When people sing, you get an opportunity to see a vulnerability, a glimpse of a life in a messed-up head.

The cast of Junkyard.
Banging heads … the cast of Junkyard at the Vench playground, Bristol – created by Jack Thorne’s father. Photograph: Mark Douet

But Junkyard isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber. The music Stephen Warbeck has written is all about the kids and the playground. He’s built instruments out of junk that our musicians and kids play. They frequently play the set too. Actually, by the time the show opens, I’m pretty sure they’ll be banging each other’s heads together for a tune – because every day the cast seem to get just a little bit wilder. Yesterday, they were kicking balls at each other’s heads through the death hole (don’t ask).

My dad once took a bunch of kids he’d been working with on a camping trip. While driving them home in the minibus, they were making a racket and he said if they didn’t shut up he’d throw them out and they could walk. A pretty standard threat. But then they didn’t shut up – and he was good to his word and left them on an A-road 30 miles north of Bristol. He thought he could circle back pretty quickly, but there wasn’t a roundabout for miles. By the time he returned, they’d hitched. On Monday, aside from a bollocking from the headmistress, the kids all went back to work on the playground.

These junkyard playgrounds are now under threat. The wilful destruction of local government services by George Osborne and co has left a skeleton of youth/outreach schemes. And this is the other reason I wanted to write the musical. Because, when it comes to cuts, who would keep open a playground over a Sure Start centre? The playgrounds, which have been burnt down so many times, are probably now under their greatest threat. But these places do captivate kids in a way that nowhere else does.

A young lad was recently killed near where I lived, and I talked to his uncle about what had happened. He said quite simply there’s nowhere else for these kids to go – nothing else for them to do. And if we don’t reach them as kids, when else do we reach them?

It does make me proud that the playground my dad built still stands. The school it was attached to was demolished in 2009 but “the Vench” playground lives on. One of my dad’s big worries about Junkyard is that I’ll give him too much credit: he was part of a team full of passionate people, who worked incredibly hard to make it happen. But I still consider it his playground and, when I go back there and see kids playing on it 40 years on, it gives me great joy. When he’s old enough to hold a hammer, I want my kid to play at the Vench, to help rebuild it and renew it. I hope the musical captures some of its indomitable spirit.

• The caption on the first picture above was amended on 9 March 2017. An earlier version said it showed London’s first adventure playground.


Jack Thorne

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