How do you follow up on what may already be the biggest play of the 21st century, a play that garnered as much critical acclaim as pulled in box office gold as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? If you’re the highly productive literary whizz-kid Jack Thorne you go back to your roots, to a story inspired by your family’s past and to a city which you once called home. With these core ingredients Thorne has fashioned a highly entertaining musical-play hybrid about those who contributed to an adventure playground in the Bristol borough of Lockleaze.
It’s a premise that doesn’t exactly scream out hit, but have no doubt, Headlong and its producing partners Theatre Clwyd and the Rose Theatre in Kingston have come together to create a work of high merit. Yet really this is a Bristol tale through and through, not only in the play’s location and the plucky, gobby yet vulnerable kids who came together to make the playground happen, but also in its anarchic, playful free-form spirit of a production which feels at home under the beautiful proscenium of Bristol Old Vic, which has been turned into its own magical playground under Tom Morris’ stewardship.
Thorne has taken inspiration from his own father’s work building adventure playgrounds in Bristol in the late ’70s. He has converted his father into Rick, a big-hearted, big-haired hippy from Walthamstow, played with genuine bonhomie by Calum Callaghan, who brings together young teenagers from the area to build something. Initially they are reluctant to get involved, damaged souls, masking their pain and insecurity through bravado. The playground brings them together, gives them a new purpose and a different way of looking at the world. In a world where local council cuts means youth centres, playgrounds and their ilk are shutting down it’s a reminder that these places can be a home for those who need it.
Yet though it wears its politics on its sleeve, it is never dry. Thorne’s script is genuinely funny and poignant while composer Stephen Warbeck’s score -orchestrated here for guitar, drum and bass – has its pulse on the ska revival of the late ’70s populated by those such as Bad Manners and Suggs, It also feels, in its mixing of everyday dialogue to music, akin to the understated beauty of London Road. Director Jeremy Herrin keeps a tight hold on the anarchy and builds up the poignancy while orchestrating his players expertly around Chiara Stephenson’s terrific adventure playground set.
He has also assembled a swell cast from Scarlett Brooke’s ‘dirty Debbie’, unsure of who the father of her child is, Josef Davies’ physically imposing but warm softie Ginger to Enyi Okoronkwo’s sweet toned endearingly shy Tale, in love with Erin Doherty’s Fiz. And who can blame him. Doherty is the star here, and by rights will soon be a star full-stop. It’s been a pleasure seeing her develop from promising Bristol Old Vic Theatre School student, into her first professional role at this theatre’s hit Pink Mist, to her coruscating turn in Wish List to this, where she holds herself front and centre. She dominates the stage and you can’t take your eyes of her. The act one climax, where something occurs as sudden and random as in real life, is a proper gut punch. It’s no wonder the second half, where she takes a storyline back seat, loses momentum as a result.
Thorne seems to have taken up the role of chronicler of young-people’s dreams. Harry Potter persuaded kids to pick up a book and escape into their imaginations, Junkyard is a playground where they found a sense of belonging. Both are equally as important. Sometimes action needs to be taken.
Junkyard runs at Bristol Old Vic until 18 Match, before heading to Theatr Clwyd (29 March to 15 April) and Rose Theatre Kingston (19 to 30 April).