Adventure Playgrounds are anarchic places. So you might expect a show about one to be anarchical too. And you’d be right. It’s certainly difficult to find a niche in which to place ‘Junkyard’; which I imagine, is exactly what the creative team was hoping for.
The piece is loosely based on the creation in the 1970s of the Bristol Adventure Playground Association which was designed to give ‘junk’ kids with ‘difficult backgrounds’ somewhere to be, something to do, and opportunities to develop as adults. One of the key personalities of that initiative was Mike Thorne, whose son Jack has written this show.
As it happens, I was volunteering at the time for the Bristol Free School Movement, which was doing something similar just down the road. It was creative, challenging and fun. And, whilst it lasted, it did indeed give kids a focus and purpose over the summer holidays when they might otherwise be getting up to all sorts of less salubrious activities.
The show certainly reminded me of the vital importance of a collective purpose in the lives of inner city teenagers. The playgrounds they created gave them a sense of pride. The young bonds made down the ‘Junkyard’ lasted a lifetime.
Free play rarely comes to much of a conclusion and the same can be said of the plot lines in this musical. The pregnant girl doesn’t have her baby. The thugs are never found. And the threat that the playground might be bulldozed for a Maths Block is unresolved. No; the strengths of this piece lie elsewhere … as it paints portraits of the tumultuous lives of individual teenagers and deals remarkably sensitively with social and racial issues in a decidedly rumbustious setting.
Stephen Warbeck’s music is really exciting; short, sharp songs backed by two rock guitars and pervading percussion performed on anything that comes to hand … even an upturned bedstead.
The lyrics are prosaic to the point of banality (but these kids were far from sophisticated) and the prose persistently uncouth. Theatre makers just don’t seem to appreciate that a constant barrage of bad language can be very tiresome; no matter how authentic it might be. And the characters are so well drawn, they don’t need to be foul mouthed to make their impact.
Erin Doherty is a brilliant Bolshie Bristolian; as forceful and fast talking as Vicky Pollard in ‘Little Britain’, but totally believable. Her wit-shrewn, street-wise attitude is the very funny fulcrum of the show. Under the natural law of opposites attracting each other, she is admired by a young, insecure, back lad ‘Talc’ who has no option but to roll over when bullied, but whose inner strength eventually earns him respect. Enyi Okoronkwo is excellent in this role. It’s an intimate, subdued performance that grows in stature as he makes his mark amongst his peers.
Calum Callaghan reminded me all the way back to the 70s with his portrayal of the idealistic, right-on teacher (with hippy hair to match) determined to do what’s best for his community; soft, gentle and caring, with a steely ideal.
The atmosphere the ensemble generates is exceptional, as is the gang spirit and lively drive with which they deliver the show. I don’t suppose the subject matter of ‘Junkyard’ will ever be everybody’s cup of tea (and there were those who vehemently opposed the whole idea of Adventure Playgrounds at the time) but seeing this show is certainly a memorable experience.
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