Junkyard continues at Bristol Old Vic until 18 March before touring to Theatr Clwyd in Mold and the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Headlong is breaking down our carefully built cynicism blow by beautiful blow. And we love the theatre company for it.
There’s a playground coming to life on stage. Chiara Stephenson has created an unrecognisable pile of scrap that locks and clicks and hinges into new life throughout the show. It is blemished, precarious and blunt, and made of nightmares. And it’s utterly perfect.
Junkyard is based on a true story about a group of 13-year-old kids, trying to grow up in Lockleaze (Bristol) in 1979. They’ve each got a truckload of baggage, and a handful of responsible, bewildered adults trying and failing in their own ways to protect them.
Rick, a naive idealist fresh from Walthamstow, is trying to get them to put together their very own playground out of scrap material. He doesn’t know quite how, but he thinks the playground can help them. The school would rather put up a maths block.
There are no pity parades here. The kids are infuriating little ‘shits’, as they’re often not undeservedly referred to. It’s a glowing credit to Jack Thorne’s book that each and every one of them is hysterical and heartbreaking in an absolutely unique way – it’s an uncommon delight.
The ensemble is stunning with the acting free of ego, of the self-conscious curse of age. There is a beautiful subtlety in watching these egocentric 13-year-olds just at the point where they are developing a sense of something else, something bigger, and reaching out to each other. That can be in no small part be due to how generous the players are to each other as well as to the audience. Each of the kids is masterfully played with wit and compassion.
Having said that, you can’t deny that one of the most wickedly moving and finely timed performances is from Erin Doherty. Her commitment, embodiment, and evident love of the character of Fizz is absolutely captivating.
The adults, too, are well played – Calum Callaghan delightfully well intentioned as Rick, Lisa Palfrey as the Mum is subtly moving, and of course Kevin McMonagle as headteacher Malcom – a performance constantly on the boil, with a great sense of comedy.
It’s also beautiful to see that the performances never edge into caricature. Director Jeremy Herrin’s kids are exaggerated, because kids are exaggerated, but it never feels condescending, or hammy. As an actor, the urge to play is constant, so it is a delight to watch a group of actors clearly delighting in their riots.
Herrin has evidently allowed a great sense of fun and chaos into the rehearsal room, while maintaining an expert grip (along with Polly Bennett, movement director) on the logistics and choreography of the piece – for something so angular, it flows spectacularly well.
Stephen Warbeck’s score is the perfect companion to the chaos with guitar, drums, and junk instruments. It’s a credit to the vocal versatility of the cast that he can combine ‘Madness’-esque choruses, big sweeping anthems, and just when you feel like you can sit back, incredibly fragile ballads which just take you out with one swoop.
It feels like a remedy to all the jukebox shows, all the singer-songwriter Lego brick blockbusters, all the ‘How-high-can-I-belt?/How-well-can-I-riff?” formulas to hear music which identifies so specifically and so thoroughly with the moments and characters they’re written for, and moves you beyond where the book has already taken you.
We need more musical theatre like this. Not because it’s ‘new writing’, not because it’s ‘quirky/unusual’, but because this company has bared its heart, artists have demonstrated absolute generosity to each other, and all have given integral commitment to the story they are trying to tell. This happens far too rarely, so don’t miss out on seeing Junkyard this time round.
* Junkyard continues at Bristol Old Vic until 18 March before touring to Theatr Clwyd in Mold (29 March until 15 April) and the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames (19-30 April).
* Look out for an interview with composer Stephen Warbeck – coming soon!