Whether it’s Scorpius Malfoy in the West End-swallowing ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ or the kids in TV series ‘Skins’, writer Jack Thorne has a talent for seeing out of teens’ eyes. He just gets their pulse, their rhythm, right.
It’s a trick he pulls off here, too, with his book and lyrics for ‘Junkyard’, a new musical for touring theatre company Headlong. Thorne always finds the personal in the stories he tells, but this one really is close to home: it’s about a teacher, based on his dad, who gives a group of at-risk 13-year-olds a sense of purpose, building an adventure playground with them in 1970s Bristol.
If that sounds sappy, or worthy, it’s not. These kids are sarky, sweary, bored and vividly realised, kicking out at being treated like the junk with which they gradually build a place of their own. Erin Doherty is superb as Fiz, the leader of the gang, turning bravado into a bruise while nailing the spiky humour.
The entire cast is great, from Enyi Okoronkwo’s fumbling Talc to Josef Davies’s frustrated Ginger and Seyi Omooba’s coiled-spring Tilly. They’ve got trauma, but Thorne never defines them by it. And while the adults mostly flail around, trying to keep up, they’re given their moments to be real as well as stupid.
Jeremy Herrin’s production is big, brash and fun, as the characters clamber over Chiara Stephenson’s extraordinary, ramshackle set, with its winched-up bridge and piles of tyres. It feels exactly like somewhere for restless energy that has no other outlet. You’ll want to play on it, too.
Stephen Warbeck’s score wraps itself around Thorne’s lyrics like a bearhug. There’s something stroppy, irreverent and right about it. It’s fragmentary. Accompanied by guitar, bass and drums, the songs are often just a few lines, not neatly turned numbers. They’re emotions in a whirl.
‘Junkyard’ is both a plea for us to tune into the frequency of being teenage and, particularly at the end, a v-sign flicked at an increasingly soulless style of schooling. It’s too long, but that’s easy to forgive in something so cheeky and full of heart.