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.


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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