Junkyard reminds us that we need to fight for places to play.
Sometime in the mid-eighties (I’m guessing the spring or summer of 1985) my parents took me to Bowood House, near Calne, where I spent an incredible couple of hours at my first adventure playground.
Rather than swings, and roundabouts, and slides there were tall wooden structures to surmount, cargo nets to scramble up, and what I recall was called a death slide, but which health and safety now demands is called a zip wire.
Back at school, I could not wait to tell my friends. “Lockleaze has got a Vench” said one mate. And so, the following Saturday, we set off – he and his brother on their BMXs, me on a racer (my parents disapproved of the brakeless BMX), five or so minutes door-to-door.
What I found was underwhelming: ramshackle structures of badly nailed wood, and tyres attached to lengths of rope. Occupying the playground were some older kids, who smoked, and swore, and were reluctant to let outsiders play. Did I, I wonder now, meet the real-life inspirations for Fiz and her friends?
This, then, is the world of Junkyard by Bafta award-winning Jack Thorne, whose Harry Potter and the Cursed Child brought the story of the boy wizard to the stage. Lockleaze, though, is no Hogwarts.
It’s the summer of 1979, and optimistic degree-educated hippy Rick, inspired by the Adventure Play movement, comes to Bristol’s Lockleaze estate to work with the secondary school’s most troubled children in building a playground.
At first he is mocked, but one by one his small army of swearing, smoking teenage recruits grow. We meet feisty Fiz – in whom Rick sees leadership qualities – and her pregnant sister ‘Dirty’ Debbie. The father of Debbie’s baby might be skinhead Ginger, or Higgy, or someone else entirely, but not the fragile Talc, who harbours not-so-discreet desires for Fiz.
The playground is built, and the friends evolve from dismissive to becoming fiercely defensive of it, mounting moonlit patrols to ward off vandals and school authorities, who want to build a maths block on the site.
Junkyard is fast-paced and witty, with much of the action taking place around the playground, which in The Best of Us has a song of its own: “This is a spider, this is a ship, this is the thing where we do dip the dip, we haven’t quite worked out what this bit is, but we promise you it is the biz,” the cast sing, in a ballad that recurs throughout the play.
Elsewhere in the song, the playground becomes a metaphor for the lives of the young people “it’s broken and s**t and it doesn’t fit, as broken and s**t as we know we are.” Oh yes, in Junkyard, everybody swears. Even the headmaster.
Music plays an important part in Junkyard, but songs are delivered naturally and honestly, rather than with West End musical flamboyance, with accompaniment provided by a stripped-down three piece ska band of bass, guitar and drums.
The mainly young cast takes the audience on an anarchic emotional rollercoaster, from despair to joyful exuberance and back again, frequently breaking the fourth wall to include the crowd in the action, but never to such great effect as when Fiz stands at the front of the stage and closes the performance with: “We’ve been junk, you’ve been lovely, thanks for coming to watch us play.”
The Vench, we’re reminded, is nearly 40 years old. Now run by a social enterprise, the roughly-hewn wood has been replaced by sanded, varnished, health and safety-pleasing structures. A fitting legacy, you’d think, to the play pioneers, but, tellingly, the name of The Vench’s Facebook page is Save Lockleaze Adventure Playground.
The Vench and playgrounds like it are constantly at risk from politicians who have forgotten the value of play. In 2014, Wiltshire Council cut the number of youth workers from 144 to 25. That number is now down to seven – for 100,000 children.
In Marlborough, the future of our 1970s Youth Centre – saved from total closure by a handful of community champions, but providing nothing like the services to young people it did five years ago – remains in limbo. Devotion, a hangout for youngsters, could close if more volunteers are not found.
Junkyard, as well as being a thoroughly entertaining two-and-a-half hours of theatre, reminds us that we need to fight for places to play.
Junkyard is at Bristol Old Vic until March 18, then tours until April 29.