A confession: it was hard finding the right words for this review. Not because there is nothing to say about KDC’s production of Junk at the Courtyard Theatre, because there is certainly plenty to be said about this strong piece of theatre, but because I was suffering after a weekend of excess: clubbing, booze and other substance abuse – with the result that many of the themes explored in Junk seemed all too familiar.
Junk is adapted by John Retallack from Melvin Burgess’s novel of the same name. For anyone unfamiliar with the work of Burgess, he’s the author of controversial novels for young adult novels that have often upset the Daily Mail brigade with their graphic depictions of teenage life. Well, he may offend but at least he is honest. Teenagers have sex, take drugs and often have to face adult issues prematurely and should be respected enough to read or view material that is relevant to their lives. Junk offers that and so much more. It certainly doesn’t skirt around the difficult issues, serving its audience prostitution, drug-addicted babies and violence. But KDC handled all these issues with sensitivity through subtle but effective performances.
It follows the story of teenage lovers Gemma (Krysia Wiechecki) and Tar (Waleed Akhtar). Tar runs away to Bristol to escape a violent father and eventually finds a squat run by Richard (Richard Thornton) and Vonnie(Rachael Cooksey), who become surrogate parents to the troubled 14 year-old. Gemma, frustrated by the constraints of living in a small town with her stuffy middle class parents, eventually joins him. This is perhaps the most flawed point of the plot. At this stage of the play Gemma comes across as a spoilt brat who is difficult to empathise with and it is difficult to believe that she would need to make the choices she does. The early scenes that explore Gemma and Tar’s backgrounds and their early days as runaways also feel bitty and struggle to gather any momentum.
However once the plot eases in and we see Gemma and Tar settle into their new life the play really takes off. Things get particularly interesting when they encounter another couple, Lily (Adelia Saunders) and Rob (Thomas Taggart), and the lives of the four youngsters become entwined in a seedy world of heroin addiction and prostitution. Wiechecki and Akhtar are faced with the difficult task of showing how Gemma and Tar grow up but both actors convincingly demonstrate their characters’ journeys from naive, optimistic teenagers to hardened young adults. This was a strong ensemble piece but one notable performance was Adelia Saunders’ portrayal as the captivating Lily. As this character seduced Gemma into a life of heroin, the audience were equally seduced by Saunders’ acting: she brought a bitter, cynical edge to Lily’s fun-loving party girl as well as a deep-rooted pain that lurked beneath the carefree exterior.
The fates of the characters are extreme. Babies are born, arrests are made, the threat of overdoses and violence always lingers. However it is perhaps the more subtle themes that provide a more damning message. The effects that a hedonistic, indulgent world can have on personal relationships, the comedowns and the avoidance of what really matters in life are more common symptoms of a druggie lifestyle, whether the drug of choice is heroin, weed, coke or booze.
Seeing Junk did not make me think twice about my own personal indulgences but then director Nick Mouton did not set out to preach. Instead he offers us a thought-provoking, powerful piece of theatre that everyone will be able to take something from.