Junkyard review – Jack Thorne's joyful musical for school misfits

Thorne, composer Stephen Warbeck, director Jeremy Herrin and a fantastic ensemble deliver a show that celebrates young people’s sense of adventure

Fiz, Ginger, Tilly and the others aren’t even really friends. They are misfits and their Bristol school doesn’t know what to do with them. Disregarded simply for coming from troubled backgrounds, they are seen, and see themselves, as no more than junk.

Then, in the summer of 1979, a man named Rick turns up at school and invites them to join him in building an adventure playground on a plot the headmaster had earmarked for the new maths block. Soon they are hanging about watching Rick at work, feigning lack of interest but making bonds. They are still suspicious that the project might be intended to save them, as if they were a rare breed of penguin on one of David Attenborough’s TV shows. By the end of the summer they would die to defend the playground, and one of them almost does.

Jack Thorne and Stephen Warbeck’s musical – directed by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin – is a low-key and understated affair. It operates as a memory play and is far from a traditional, full-on song and dance musical. When these people open their mouths to sing, it is as natural as drinking a glass of water. Warbeck’s score is sometimes beautiful, but often has an easy conversational quality that folds modestly into the storytelling.

From its eerie, shiver-down-the-spine opening moments, the show is a slow-burner and the first half takes some time to set up the situation and the characters. The payoff is a second half of real emotional impact that left me smiling throughout as it celebrates the right of children and young people to turn their individual lives into an adventure through physical and imaginative play.

“We’ve been junk, you’ve been lovely. Thanks for coming to watch us play,” says Fiz at the end, and one of the pleasures of this evening is the way it riffs on notions of playing and of drama itself with such unselfconscious directness. Thorne’s script and his characters have no side. What you see is what you get. As Fiz, who speaks both her mind and her heart, sometimes with disastrous consequences, Erin Doherty – so brilliant recently in Wish List – turns in a quite remarkable performance of tender toughness.

There is terrific support from Enyi Okoronkwo as the gentle, damaged Talc, and Scarlett Brookes as Erin’s pregnant elder sister, already labelled and written off as “dirty Debbie” and whose exclusion from the adventure playground comes as another blow. Lisa Palfrey is comically engaging as the mum who fancies her kids’ teacher and who deals with rejection by snapping: “You’re not a teacher, you’re a playground attendant.” But it’s an ensemble show, and everything about it feels like a labour of love. That’s why I loved it, too.

Contributor

Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Jack Thorne

06, Feb, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Junkyard review – young stars shine in Jack Thorne’s playground musical
The story of an idealistic adult winning over a bunch of disaffected kids is a familiar one, but lifted by its sizzling cast

Clare Brennan

12, Mar, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Grinning Man review – Victor Hugo musical is wonderfully weird
Circus freaks, puppets and soaring songs collide in a new adaptation that deftly walks a tightrope between romantic and grotesque

Michael Billington

23, Oct, 2016 @10:26 AM

Article image
The Life review – New York's sleazy underbelly gets a musical sparkle
This show about 42nd Street in the 1980s is imaginatively staged with the ever-magnificent Sharon D Clarke but it’s a tough sell

Michael Billington

29, Mar, 2017 @11:00 PM

Article image
Hope review – Jack Thorne's austerity drama is urgent, edgy and inspiring
This play about local authority cuts could not be more timely – and it entertains even as it offers a call to arms, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

03, Dec, 2014 @11:47 AM

Article image
Swallows and Amazons – review

Tom Morris's production of Swallows and Amazons, at the Bristol Old Vic, allows the audience to enter the same imaginative conspiracy as the Walker children, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

08, Dec, 2010 @9:30 PM

Article image
Grease review – grit is the word in unsentimental musical
Nikolai Foster’s revival returns to the musical’s roots, restoring rarely heard tunes and replacing the sanitised film’s California beaches with Chicago’s mean streets

Alfred Hickling

05, Dec, 2016 @12:56 PM

Article image
Jesus Christ Superstar review – a gorgeous, thrilling, heavenly musical
Wit, lyricism and satirical bite abound in this dramatic revival of the classic rock opera with a first-rate cast

Lyn Gardner

22, Jul, 2016 @11:52 AM

Article image
Strictly Ballroom: The Musical review – utterly ridiculous, totally joyous
The stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s movie gives the audience a good time and there are moments when Drew McOnie’s choreography burns up the floor

Lyn Gardner

08, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Into the Woods review – Sondheim's barbed musical staged with brio
Fiasco’s inventive, vigorous version of Stephen Sondheim’s modern fairytale doesn’t entirely mask the problems of James Lapine’s convoluted book

Michael Billington

13, Jul, 2016 @10:56 AM