The first sight of a high pile of rubbish at the centre of a round thrust stage brings memories flooding back from over 30 years ago and the first London production of Cats. Here we have another brand new musical, but no felines and the only junk to be seen is in the show’s set.
The show has a book and lyrics by Jack Thorne, who demonstrates yet again that he writes for and about youngsters better than anyone else around at the moment. The music is composed by Stephen Warbeck, better known for film scores, and his style? Well, think Suggs and Madness, although it is hard to think of anything else after an early song titled Our Home. It is a show in which familiarity breeds affection, the arc of the story being predictable from scene one, but it is the exuberant telling of it, the filling in of the detail and the fleshing out of the characters that bring joy.
In 1979, a group of special needs kids at a Bristol school get roped in reluctantly by Rick (Callum Callaghan), a teaching assistant who is seeking his true vocation, to occupy their Winter of discontent by turning a junkyard at their school into a playground. Without calling for help from Nick Knowles, they take to the task and the experience transforms their lives. However corny this outline sounds, Junkyard is underpinned by real anger at young lives potentially going to waste. Thorne and Warbeck, both with Bristol connections, make a passionate plea for a revival of community spirit to unlock hidden talents and let new generations thrive.
The group’s leader is Fiz, played by Erin Doherty with an air of insolent nonchalance that is reminiscent of Catherine Tate’s Lauren character. She could easily have followed her older sister, “dirty” Debbie (Scarlett Brookes), into single motherhood, but she seizes her chance to break out. Nervous and uncertain Talc (a very touching performance by Enyi Okoronkwo), gains confidence and purpose and street thug Ginger (Josef Davies) find an entirely unexpected calling. It has to be said that the best that some of the actors playing “kids” can claim is that they were teenagers once, but, having said it, we can move on swiftly because all the performances are beautifully judged.
Directing for his Headlong company, Jeremy Herrin gives the production pace and youthful energy, but it is rather a pity that the cast’s excellent dancing skills are seen only fleetingly. As mentioned before, Chiara Stephenson’s set is rubbish, but its transformations are imaginative and clever lighting, designed by Jack Knowles, adds to its grimy splendour. Over 150 minutes (with interval), the story is stretched a little thin and loses its way slightly in the second half, but Thorne rescues it with with sharp and perceptive dialogue and lyrics. He sets out to inspire us, young and old, and, although his methods are obvious, resistance proves futile.
Performance date: 20 April 2017