Jenny Hayes takes a trip to the playground with Junkyard, Bristol Old Vic’s latest feisty production

Plunging your audience into the pitch black and shining torchlight in their eyes is a bold way to open a play. But it’s a fitting start to a production that pulls no punches.

Junkyard tells the true story behind The Vench, an adventure playground in Lockleaze that was designed and built in 1976 by a group of local teenagers. The idea behind this initiative, and the others like it that sprang up around the UK during the 1970s, was to encourage disaffected kids to use their imaginations and the everyday items that surrounded them to create a space of their own.

JunkyardTeens at The Vench, image © Manuel Harlan

So far, so idealistic, but rest assured Junkyard is far from trite. Bristol writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Let The Right One In) gives voice to a ragbag bunch of marginalised teenagers in a magnificent script that articulates with clarity the confusion of adolescence, and seethes with a potent undercurrent of social tension. From the moment these ‘heroes’ erupt onto the stage, in a flurry of swear words and cheap jibes, it’s clear that they are more than a match for Rick (Calum Callaghan), the eager but inexperienced play leader tasked with inspiring them on this project.

JunkyardJack Riddiford (Higgy), Josef Davies (Ginger), Erin Doherty (Fiz), Calum Callaghan (Rick), Enyi Okoronkwo (Talc) and Ciaran Alexander Stewart (Loppy), image © Manuel Harlan

A magnetic cast bring Thorne’s words to life. Stand out characters from among the motley crew of misfits are gobby Fiz (Erin Doherty) a tomboy who’s pricklier than barbed wire and armed with a rapier wit, bovver boot wearing Ginger (Josef Davies) who looks set to follow his elder brother to Borstal, and timid Talc (Enyi Okoronkwo) who has trouble holding his own amid the brash bravado of his peers.

JunkyardGobby but good-hearted tomboy Fiz (Erin Doherty) stands out from the crowd, image © Manuel Harlan

As the tale tumbles forward, we see that there is far more to these kids than the behavioural problems that define them on their school reports. Fiz’s big mouth belies a heart of gold, Talc proves to be a fount of wisdom when he finally finds his voice, and Ginger might just be the world’s first pacifist punk. These transformations are poignant and touching to witness, but delivered with the earthy language and raw humour that give the script such integrity, and avoids any nauseating whiff of sentimentality.

JunkyardThere’s nothing sentimental about this feisty motley crew, image © Manuel Harlan

Intrinsic to the success of this production is that it is a musical. Before I went along, I did harbour concern that a gaggle of inner city kids breaking into song might be a bit incongruous, but I was defiantly proved wrong. Songs are effortlessly interlaced with spoken word to create a personal conduit into the mind of each character. While the language remains authentic, words that are sung are without the protective edge that both teenagers and adults adopt when speaking aloud. Talc’s ‘life in the cupboard’, in particular, is visceral and heartbreaking.

“Fuelled by the spirit of Bristol, Junkyard is an anarchic musical that flouts the rules with every bit as much enthusiasm as the group of teenagers on which it is based…”

Stephen Warbeck’s (Wolf Hall, The Seagull) brilliant score captures the spirit of the 70s, traversing smooth grooves, funky bass lines and bouncy ska-infused numbers that add real depth to the atmosphere on stage. The set, designed by Chiara Stephenson (Sigur Ros, Taming of the Shrew), transforms around the cast as they scamper across it, bringing the story to life under the skilled direction of Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin (This House, Wolf Hall).

Fuelled by the spirit of Bristol, Junkyard is an anarchic musical that flouts the rules with every bit as much enthusiasm as the group of teenagers on which it is based. Although rooted in the past, the story is very familiar to a modern audience – from our own city and others across the UK – as once again key public areas and services come under threat. The message is clear – stop tearing the funding out of our communities, because doing so rips out their hearts as well.

Catch Junkyard at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 18 March. For more information or to book tickets, visit: www.bristololdvic.org.uk