Junkyard by Jack Thorne (Headlong) at Bristol Old Vic | Performance Analysis

I’ve been up to Bristol this weekend to catch Headlong and Jack Thorne’s new play Junkyard. I spoke in my last video of the tendency of plays which focus on themes of place to try to lock specific places into global histories. Doing so can often feel like they’re in some ways hedging their bets, trying to ensure that a place which might be of a minority interest can have mass appeal. Junkyard bucks this trend. This is a very Bristol story about a very Bristol place; the Lockleaze junkyard playground. It’s the late 1970s and the group of kids that we’re about to follow are somewhat dysfunctional; or that’s how everyone else would see them. In truth, they’re 13, their school’s given up on them and their home lives aren’t exactly what you’d call stable. Most of all, though, they’re faced with the contradictions that come with being a kid of that age. They’re kids that aren’t quite kids still, expected to deal with the adult repercussions of life (education, crime, pregnancy) while no one bothers to listen to what their solutions to these might be. They’re expected to make something of their lives which the various adults around them might be proud of without any of the support structures in place or role models there to help them do so. Finally, they’re expected not to get into trouble even though trouble is the only thing stopping their lives from becoming a repetitious grind of uneventful day after uneventful day. Each of them, then, finds different ways to find excitement in their lives whether it’s Ginger’s misbehaving at the back of class, Debbie’s running around with boys or Fiz’s habitual stealing. Then along comes Rick, a hippyish bloke from Walthamstow who wants to help them build a playground out of junk. And to say that the last thing these kids need is another adult with another set of success criteria is an understatement. Fiz in particular sees it as a bit of a kick in the teeth; while kids in other areas might have a fancy new playground built for them, they have to go and build their own. The one adult they will do something to please, however, is their mums and so, one by one, Rick charms their mothers into it forcing them to help build the playground. The metaphor of junk is one that it’s hard to miss throughout the play and yet it’s worth going over here. The set and vast majority of the band’s instruments are constructed from unwanted waste and off-cuts. And just as scraps of wood and oil drums can find a sense of purpose in a playground, so can these young people. The energy and drive which were once the bane of their parents and teachers becomes a true asset when given focus and direction by the playground project. Both building and then defending the playground put all of the skills which they already have to use, even if in Ginger’s case this consists of making rather shoddy if particularly deadly weapons. What was most clear, though, is that Junkyard avoids any saviour narratives of Rick coming in to save these kids. It would have been easy to have the play solve the ensemble’s problems by realigning them towards middle-class ideas of success. In an alternative universe there’s a version of this play where each of the characters sort their lives out, works out how to get down at school, goes on to higher education and then gets a reputable job in the professions. Without giving away too many spoilers here that happens in very few cases in the play. For the most part the kids keep their quirks and continue to make the same mistake they made before. In short they continue to be junk and yet what the playground project allows them to do is to own that sense of being junk and to embrace that marginalized identity. Junkyard is very much a story for the misfits, for those on the edge, it’s a story for those that are fed up with being square pegs banged into round holes. In these post-Brexit times of disaffection and disillusionment Junkyard speaks volumes. Popular discourse, particular on the left side of the aisle, has many debates about how to engage with such disaffected communities. Furthermore, such debates have been overwhelmingly negative about the ownership of place. In this line of thinking to claim affinity to anywhere is by default an exclusionary act. And we see this in Junkyard through the eyes of the pregnant Debbie to whom the playground is just another project which she’s not invited to be a part of. It takes quite a while for Talc to convince her that just because the playground is theirs doesn’t mean that by extension it is not hers. Hannah Arendt did much reflection on her experience as a stateless person, that is, someone without a legal nationality. She said that ‘only savages have nothing more to fall back upon that the minimum fact of their human origin. People cling to their nationality all the more desperately when they have lost the right to protection such a nationality once gave them. It remains to be seen whether the young people in Junkyard would have rallied around the playground project if it hadn’t been for the school governors who attacked it through policy or the other young local kids who attacked it through arson. For these drifting youngsters, the playground and the sense of belonging that represents, gives them a port in which to weigh anchor, it gives them a clearly demarcated space where their thoughts and opinions matter. In their homes and their schools their opinion is given short shrift yet here is a space in which they have jurisdiction. One thing I think might be divisive about this production is the music. As Jack Thorne says in the forward to the play text it isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber. There are a few true soaring tunes here that one is going to go away with stuck in their head. What composer Stephen Warbeck does is to essentially recreate the tone and melodic quality of young kids making up songs as they go along. The sung style is the part speech, part song of the nervy preteen. Personally, I really liked this, it ensured that the play came full circle, representing the young people not just through the story of the play but in its formal qualities too. There is, however, a more direct politics to Junkyard which addresses the government’s increasing ambivalence toward young people. It reminded me an awful lot of an interview with a young man in the wake of the riots in London in 2011 in which he pointed towards the closure of youth centres across the city. In representing the supposed junk of society, Junkyard shows us that they may still have some potential yet, if only young people like this are given a chance.

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