Skip to content

Hard-Edged Humanity: Junkyard

by on 21 April 2017


by Jack Thorne, music by Stephen Warbeck

Co-Production by Headlong, Bristol Old Vic, RTK and Theatr Clwyd

at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 30th April

Review by Mark Aspen

Junkyard, as a musical, is totally frank about itself, as frank as it raw-edged characters, very much what you see is what you get, an honesty of approach.   Its characters are social misfits, even in the sink estate underclass of Bristol’s roughest areas in the late 1970’s where they live and go to school.  Even amongst the adolescents, their experience of the world is poverty, prison, pregnancy.

The musical was initially conceived by Headlong, a young company grounded in Bristol itself, and its three co-producers are the three theatres that have hosted its tour, Bristol Old Vic on home ground, Theatr Clwyd up on the Dee, and The Rose Theatre, in genteel Kingston.  So, what will the burghers of Kingston make of it?  My guess is that it will be a Marmite production for them: love it or hate it.   If you like your musicals to be a sweet, sunny and serene singalong then Junkyard is probably not for you, but do go along before the end of the month to the Rose Theatre, for in this new musical you will find humanity and humour bursting forth from a bleak landscape, like fireweed on a refuse tip.

For the teenagers at Lockleaze, school is an irrelevant bore; they are heading for that prison, for poverty or, as Debbie, now slightly older, puts it “making the same mistakes as Mum”, since she is pregnant and there are a number candidates for the dad.  Apathy reigns, and there is nobody to rescue them from becoming underachieving, underprivileged underdogs … or is there?  Enter Rick, a new teacher, unconventional: long hair, wide flares, big heart.  He is a Londoner, from Walthamstow (inspired by author Jack Thorne’s own father, Mick from Walthamstow) who in his youth “built dams all over Hackney”.   His idea is to build an adventure playground from old timber, left over materials, junk.  At first he is “Rick the Prick” but with sheer tenacity he breaks down their reluctance to being part of such an un-cool project, and all too slowly fires up their imagination.


Set designer, Chiara Stephenson, has created a set which smacks of the anarchic statement of the story’s adventure playground, looming, grey, wreathed in fog.  Precariously shape-shifting as the play develops, it changes with the action, during its construction, its vicissitudes of arson and vandalism, its aborted demolition.   This structure, “The Vench”, is the overarching symbol in the musical.  It represents what is needed to bring stability to the lives of these broken young people: something to strive for, something to own, something to create; and it is also symbolic of the relationships that every one of the characters, including the adults, is trying, unsuccessfully to build.  In all cases, this relationship building is frustrated, and the attempts to build the relationship are awkward.

As the central mover of the plot, Rick is the white knight and his shinning armour is his own dogged determination.  Calum Callaghan’s portray of Rick is warm, natural and affecting, showing even Rick’s strong resolve to be dented by adversities which undermine his confidence to start a new career.  Unwittingly, he becomes the unwelcome centre of attraction to both one of his young protégés, Fiz, who wants to snog him, and her Mum, for whom hospitals make her “horny” (!).   Lisa Palfrey as Mum has a fierce bounding affection for all her charges: a warm but unlikely matriarch.


Her son, Ginger, is the “sort-em-out” toughy, but easily wound up and, in the event, as vulnerable as them all.  Played by Josef Davies as a gentle giant, we see through his bravado (manifest in his never-to-be-used weapon of a sack of six-inch nails swinging on a stick) to the fractured character underneath.  Her elder daughter, Debbie, she of the unknown inseminator, is in the dichotomous position of being the cement that binds the group, whist being the excluded outsider.  Her depiction by Scarlett Brookes was pitched in just the right place.  (Incidentally, her burgeoning bump as her pregnancy advanced through the months of the action was nice attention to detail for Emma Ntinas’ wardrobe.)


It is however, Mum’s younger daughter Fiz who is the principal focus of the plot.  Erin Doherty fairly zipped along in this part, words tumbling enthusiastically from her (perhaps too fast for many of the undiscerning older ears in the audience), her energy unflagging.  She dealt with cannonades of the F-word and C-word with a broad smile that would disarm even the most priggish listener.  Fiz is the natural leader of the group and they become lost and purposeless when she is severely injured by intruders in the adventure playground. Fiz also acts as a narrator, who confides with the audience at the beginning of the show, “We’re a bunch of junk” and, with self-deprecating candour at the end tells the audience “We’ve been junk, you’ve been lovely. Thanks for coming to watch us play”.

If all this seems coarse and unfit for your maiden aunt, it is; but it has great moments of insight and even beauty.  Particularly touching, is the role of Talc, so-called at his own admission because of “a B O issue”.  He is a fractured soul, who speaks lovingly of his rough-diamond aunt, who introduced him to the seaside.  The transience of sandcastles becomes a metaphor for his own life, for what he builds is lost.  His aunt took her own life, because of a “blackbird in her head”.  Talc cannot tell Fiz that he loves her, except when she is in hospital in a coma.  Enyi Okoronkwo in this role, reveals the gentle, patient and accepting nature of Talc in a nicely understated way.

The image of a blackbird runs through the more lyrical moments in the songs and music.  Fiz sings of the blackbird that is sitting on a post.  However, Warbeck’s score has just the occasional flashes of lyricism in a musicscape that is mostly ska-based, loud and uncompromising.  Nevertheless it ranges quite widely from discordant passages to melodic emotion.   Akintayo Akinbode’s musical direction is inventive, as are some of the instruments, one a guitar interwoven into the springs of a bed-base as a sounding board.

There are no brilliant singers in this musical, many voices are in talk-along mode, but somehow all this fits with the rough-edged attack of the plot.  The songs work best when they are sung as an ensemble, and the cast has clearly grown together as a voice.  The result is a high-energy, in-yer-face, musical offering, but one that is fun.  It seems in some parts of the show almost to be spontaneous.

The awkward nature of adolescent identity-seeking and of nascent sexual feelings is accurately shown by the supporting cast, Enyi Okoronko as Tilly, Jack Riddiford as Higgy and Ciaran Alexander Stewart as Loppy.   In a well-defined cameo role, Kevin McMonagle as the headmaster, Malcolm, torn better propriety and empathy, complements with equal energy a cast at least half his age.

Malcolm, even from his lofty position as head teacher, has to admit that The Vench is “imaginative, inspirational and intriguing”.  When it is threatened with demolition, as a hazard made more so by malignant intruders, Malcolm is clearly torn, but he has to go along with the school governors’ position that the site would be better served by a maths block.    (There were over 500 adventure playgrounds in England and Wales in 1970.  There are now just over a fifth of that number, the rest having fallen to the demands of health and safety, political correctness, and civic penury.)

Mum says of Fiz and her commitment to their adventure playground, “She’s never fought for anything before”.  For the young people of Junkyard, The Vench fires the imagination and shows them previously unimagined possibilities.  “It is a ship.  It is a spider”, they sing.  The Ship certainly takes them on a journey and The Spider becomes a rallying point.  The Spider is a fifteen-foot tall tripod of timber, secured by a used tyre, and flying a black flag pieced with image of an arachnoid.  The Spider is rebuilt time and time again as a symbol of defiance.

The group may have made these structures, full of wonder in their own imaginations, but as they ultimately say, “It made us”.

Mark Aspen

April 2017

Photography by Manuel Harlan

  1. Elaine permalink

    I really enjoyed reading this review having seen Junkyard recently. It mirrored my own feelings about this raw musical and it being forewarned, it shouldn’t be missed.

  2. celiabard permalink

    Sorry, I can’t see this – the review makes it an interesting production and well worth seeing. All the best, Anne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: