There's a charming anarchic quality to Jack Thorne and Stephen Warbeck's new musical Junkyard that on the one hand feels fresh and forward thinking yet still manages to feel narratively stinted and problematic. It's not your average new musical – Warbeck's score is electric and natural, stemming more from situation than character so much so that it becomes an almost seamless extension of Thorne's book. This has its advantages and drawbacks – whilst the form may be waving the banner for a new breed of musical it's unequivocally forced into an expected structure and narrative tropes associated with traditionalism that then undermine its expression.
At its heart it's a story about imagination and the conflicts of youth. The growing pains of being somewhat forgotten by the system that in 1970s Bristol didn't necessarily extend to all children are clear, and the battle against the authoritative voices drive the plot forward, albeit in a predictable fashion. It's transformative and champions fighting for a cause you believe in whilst remaining specific as well as all encompassing in its overall message.
Thorne's book is explanatory and overly direct. Presented as a sort of memory play it sketches the predictable journey too neatly – you can guess the conflicts before they happen. Potty mouthed 13-year old Fiz acts as a sort of narrator providing historical context to this piece that draws on a relatively niche yet interesting footnote of social history. Her absence is severely felt in the second act and the writing suffers when her narrative stalls. All musicals have second-act problems, but Thorne clutches at straws to keep all the balls up in the air by introducing new side stories and relationships that tread water. The 'where are they now' wrap up at the end undermines the piece's faith in its ability to be different, it ends up doing too much of the work for you and forcing you to specific conclusions that it almost feels like sponsored content you'd read on the sidebar of a newspaper.
Warbeck's score is refreshingly original and brings a new sound that feels naturally in line with the message and environment. It's wonderfully realised by a three piece onstage band, who are thrilling to watch – drummer Nadine Lee is particularly engaging, adding a deliberately disjointed and angular beat to the musical numbers. As a composer known for writing music for plays Warbeck isn't showy or overblown, don't expect declamations of emotions or witty character ballads, instead the lyrics clatter and clunk and on occasion repeat themselves a little too frequently. Whilst he doesn't structure songs in the usual musical theatre style his hooks are inescapably catchy, raising our interest levels when the story begins to drag.
It's skillfully realised by a tight ensemble who bring the colourful set of characters to life. Erin Doherty revels in the skittish disorder of Fiz, the leader of the pack who suffers an incident in the playground that leads to it being shut down. Calum Callaghan keeps a handle on the rag-tag group in the philanthropic role of teacher Rick who corals the group and inspires them to channel their various energies into building the playground. He finds a quiet authority that feels genuine and never forced, echoed by a strong supporting performance by Lisa Palfrey as the lone mother figure.
Jeremy Herrin directs with a swift verve that feels occasionally static against Chiara Stephenson's clever set that gets assembled before our eyes and captures the scrappy inventiveness of the playground's spirit. At times it too consciously fights the urge to expand into the genre in which it sits which is something to its detriment. I wish its anarchism could have been pushed further to create a real form-bending new musical, instead it settles and doesn't altogether fight for what it believes in.
Junkyard tickets are on sale at the Rose Theatre Kingston to 30 April.