1990s >> 1998 >> no-1123-march-1998

Theatre Review: ‘Junk’

It’s Not Only Heroin That Blows Your Mind


The Oxford Stage Company are an enterprising group with a good track record for producing realistic, contemporary drama. They are soon to go on the road with Roots, Arnold Wesker’s masterpiece about working-class enlightenment, but at present they are touring with a play about heroin addicts, adapted from Melvin Burgess’s book Junk.

The adaptation has been managed by the play’s director, John Retallack, and the result points, yet again, to the danger of allowing one person to both write and direct. Another director would surely have said to John Retallack, the author, “The piece is too long and unhelpfully repetitive. If it is to work as a drama it needs pruning.”

But if Retallack doesn’t always manage to keep the narrative taut and lean, there are other more substantial failings. Burgess’s book is set in Bristol in the early 1980s. It tells the story of a group of junkies, an especially two fourteen-year-olds, Tar and Gemma, who have run away from their homes in a nearby small town-he because his father assaults him regularly, she to escape her small-minded parents. Never mind that Gemma’s parents are comic caricatures masquerading as real people, the picture that is painted of homeless junkies is absurdly romantic. Well-appointed squats are seemingly easy to find, drugs are plentiful, and money appears hardly a problem when drugs are paid for by casual prostitution. There is no mention of the uncertainties of life, the possibilities of mindless violence fuelled by addiction, the cost of drugs paid for by petty crime.

Burgess describes his book as “a piece of entertainment”, and I think this fairly describes its Mills and Boon-like mixture of naïve and uncomplicated fantasising. Unfortunately many people, not least teachers, seem to have seen the book as some kind of definitive description of the 1980s’ drug scene. When I saw the play the theatre was packed with parties of 14-18-year-olds and their accompanying teachers. The programme approvingly quotes one fourteen-year-old as follows: “Well the pop stars are all saying how great drugs are. And the press is always saying how awful they are. This is a book that tells the story and lets me decide for myself.”

The thought that reading Burgess’s book (or seeing Retallack’s play) might be a suitable basis for making an informed decision about drugs seems a sick joke of almost tragic proportions. The idea of choice presupposes the existence of acceptable alternatives, from which a choice is possible. But there is nothing in the story that is retailed here that even begins to sketch the nature of such alternatives. This is because the nature of these alternatives would only become clear after a considered analysis of the use of drugs, seen from a number of perspectives. And it is no part of the function of schools, colleges and universities to give access to such perspectives, since the interests of those who at present manage society are not well served by an educated, discriminating population. It would involve an appraisal of the use of drugs through space and time: an attempt to answer questions like, “What are the physiological effects of tobacco and alcohol-is it only illegal drugs which are dangerous?” “What is it about contemporary life that makes taking hard drugs attractive?” “Why is it that life is so lacking in appeal for so many young people that they need to escape by ‘blowing their minds’?” “Is it possible to imagine other social arrangements which are sufficiently fulfilling for use of mind-blowing drugs as a form of escape to be unnecessary?” etc, etc.

That teachers should think that exposure to the kind of inadequate fantasising that is at the heart of Junk has something to do with education and enlightenment, is a fair indication of the way in which they have succumbed to the fictions of contemporary capitalism. When it comes to mind blowing the ideological apparatus of capitalism, whether realised in newspapers, TV programmes, books and plays, or education, can be very bad for your mental health.

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