Junkyard review – young stars shine in Jack Thorne’s playground musical

Bristol Old Vic
The story of an idealistic adult winning over a bunch of disaffected kids is a familiar one, but lifted by its sizzling cast

Junkyard is a new musical inspired by writer Jack Thorne’s father’s experience as a playleader in Bristol’s Lockleaze district back in 1979 – binmen on strike, rubbish in the street, rats – the year he set up the area’s adventure playground. Around me in the audience on this, the home leg of the tour, are generations now grown reliving their own memories of that same site – maybe even current users, too, among the unusually numerous young faces (the playground continues, but is threatened by cuts). It’s clear that this particular story has powerful local appeal, but it also has a generic feel (it’s a four-member co-production by Bristol Old Vic, Headlong, Rose Theatre Kingston and Theatr Clwyd): an idealistic adult, Rick, takes on a group of disadvantaged and disaffected teenagers (“This is me and my life is boring,” runs one early chorus); both parties are transformed by the experience.

Thorne has just been nominated for an Olivier for his script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (winners to be announced on 9 April). The secondary school site of this action is no Hogwarts – Chiara Stephenson’s design tellingly projects a wall of identical square windows behind the imagination-provoking associative assemblages that make up the adventure playground. But soul-sucking evils are not confined to fictions; these pupils, too, have battles to fight – against social, economic and emotional deprivations. Initially, their main weapon is amorphous nonconformity: a lippy, chippy, cheeky refusal to join in. Involvement in Rick’s project gives them the sense of identity that allows them to engage with the world on their own terms (as when, for instance, they insist the headteacher call them by their nicknames, not their register names).

Thorne’s words and Stephen Warbeck’s music mesh together as satisfyingly as the wood, tyres and ropes of the playground construction. The dramatic construction, by contrast, is shaky: underdeveloped and overlong. Under Jeremy Herrin’s direction (and Polly Bennett’s movement direction) the 10-strong cast all sizzle – but youngsters Josef Davies and Enyi Okoronkwo also shine, and Erin Doherty (as 13-year-old narrator/ heroine, Fiz) dazzles.

• At the Old Vic, Bristol, until 18 March


Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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