Sometimes I think critics shouldn’t be the ones writing the reviews. Instead, responses should be written by the ones the show is made for. Jack Thorne’s Junkyard is easily enjoyable by all, a bundle of laughs wrapped up in a blanket of heartstrings. But it feels like it has been made for teenagers who are having a tough time, and I wish it could be them getting the chance to tell others to see it, because here, their voice means far more than mine.
Young people often aren’t given credit for the struggle of growing up. The lack of self-confidence merging with growing friendships, dealing with difficult homes lives or struggling with academia. Junkyard is a rallying cry for the celebration of imagination, and the value of that above all. It is warm and funny, and I can imagine it could be inspiring to young people who need to be reminded that their voice matters.
Junkyard sees the well-meaning Rick (Callum Callaghan) gather together a group of reluctant school kids to make a playground out of junk. Erin Doherty’s Fiz is asked to lead the gang. She’s a teenager who is growing up too fast, trying to navigate life as it tumbles over in front of her. Her pregnant sister “dirty Debbie” (Scarlett Brookes) is ignored, assumed to be too busy being pregnant and pretty to be asked to get her hands dirty. And they are all overlooked by headteacher Malcolm (Kevin McMonagle), almost a carbon copy of Mr Gilbert from The Inbeweeners.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction is light and playful, and Jack Knowles’ lighting design creates several utterly beautiful moments, flames flickering and blinding beams of light flying about. The characters, however, take time to develop, only dragging themselves out of caricaturist boxes in the second half.
Gradually the kids become less hostile towards Rick and eventually begin to take pride their playground. They become determined and defiant in the face of it being threatened. They make you want to stand at the bottom of the structure to support them, ready to catch them should they fall, and by the end of the night you want to be friends with them all. When a disastrous event takes place and Fiz can’t lead the gang any more, Enyi Okoronkwo, as the cowering Talc, takes her place. His adorable, bumbling attitude is difficult to resist falling in love with.
The kids are quick-witted and cunning, with Thorne’s characteristic sarcasm given endless room to snap, prod and provoke. His dialogue stands far above his lyrics. The songs have an infantilism to them. This occasionally makes them feel chucked on top of the script rather than nailed into place. Stephen Warbeck’s music is best when the on-stage band interact with the cast, but for a show so deeply ingrained in Bristol, it is odd that the music doesn’t pay more of a hand to the famous Bristol sound.
The childish defiance ingrained in the show begins to feel slightly revolutionary towards the end. It is the small acts of bravery and kindness that count. Ending on a heartfelt plea, the cast remind us of the true story of the junkyard: “Thanks for coming to watch us play.” Thorne based Rick on his own father who helped build the playground in Lockleaze, and on press night a group of students from that area of the city attended. The authenticity and locality of the play feels special, with the crowd at the Bristol Old Vic fluttering with excitement at every mention of a local area.
If teachers don’t mind the swearing, schools should definitely be taken to see Thorne’s show. Ultimately, Junkyard reminds us of the importance of friendship, of imagination, and of standing up for what we believe in.
Junkyard is on at the Bristol Old Vic unit 18th March 2017, and then touring. Click here for more details.