The brilliant writer Jack Thorne is hard to avoid just now. He has just picked up a best new play Olivier for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and crafted a new version of Woyzeck for Star Wars actor John Boyega at the Old Vic, and has his head down adapting Philip Pullman’s epic His Dark Materials trilogy for the BBC.
But the current project that is closest to Thorne’s heart is the musical Junkyard, which opened at the Rose Theatre in Kingston yesterday.
The premise – youth leader inspires a gang of teenagers on a rundown housing estate to build an adventure playground out of recycled junk – comes straight out of Thorne’s own childhood, when his father Mike did just that on the rundown Lockleaze housing estate in Bristol.
The musical is a homage to his father, even if the characters are fiction and – as fans of Thorne’s TV series Skins and This Is England would expect – he has injected dark and complex emotions into his teenagers and given more than a few twists to the tale.
“Certainly we didn’t want it to be a straightforward story where someone comes to town, makes everyone’s lives better and buggers off,” says Thorne.
“We wanted it to be much more about the difficulties of working with kids who aren’t used to much adult supervision and so, yeah, there’s a fair whack of darkness.”
The experience of writing the musical and bringing it to the stage in the city where the events that triggered it took place has however been a bright and joyful one for Thorne.
“I don’t think I will ever forget the first night in Bristol, when my dad was there and some of the people were there who helped build the Lockleaze playground when they were kids 45 years ago,” says Thorne.
“To hear them talking about my dad, while standing beside him on stage, that was really special. Really special.
“Dad didn’t say a huge amount, you know, he’s not a [man of many words]. But he’s very proud of [the musical], and it has been nice to celebrate him. This is a guy who spent years doing jobs like these. Most children don’t get the chance to do this [for their parent], and it’s really nice to be given a chance to look up to a special man.”
A human dynamo whose speech crackles with nervous energy, at just 38 Thorne has already written 12 plays and won four BAFTAs for his television writing.
He seems voracious for new challenges and new skills. For His Dark Materials, he reveals, he is being advised on science by a nuclear physicist so that he can get it right when, for example, he describes the behaviour of the metal in the Subtle Knife that can cut between worlds.
Junkyard gave him the chance to write song lyrics for the first time, though he modestly credits composer Stephen Warbeck for helping him get it right.
Thorne is such a perfectionist that after watching the opening performance, he decided that the story wasn’t unfolding properly and wrote an entire new scene. The actors hastily rehearsed it and slotted it seamlessly in.
He says he is happy with it now. “Yes, very proud, and hugely proud that people have got it, and audiences have got it. It has felt really special, each and every night. It’s a show that lives off the energies of the audience, and so each night has been really, really different.”
He calls it an unconventional musical and won’t reveal if it has a conventional happy ending.
“I wouldn’t want to give away too much,” he says.
We’ll just have to go and see it to find out.