Junk Oxford Playhouse
Theatre: Junk

Oxford Playhouse

In the hospital bed, there's a white, withered pregnant heap that was once a lovely girl. She's 18 now and the first thought of her mother, who hasn't seen her for years, is how startlingly like her own aged mother she looks. Junk - John Retallack's excellent adaptation of Melvin Burgess's controversial, award-winning novel - takes you on Gemma's flight path through escape from a stiflingly dull northern lower-middle-class home and entry into the world of squats and heroin addiction and the prostitution that pays for this lifestyle, or rather this death-in-lifestyle.

The evening is artfully constructed on an upper and downer basis. I'm not saying that, after seeing the first half, teenagers will be giving their parents the slip and, stolen credit card in hand, be off roaming the streets in search of a drug pusher. Performed by a superb company in a semi-presentational manner on a versatile junk-shoppy set, the show is scrupulous about never glamorising the rotten existence of the junkies.

But, until Gemma (Emma Rydal) and Tar (Dan Rosewarne), her emotionally younger and dependent boyfriend, actually fall prey to the tentacular bewitchment of a couple of adult addicts, it's the runaways' need for liberation with which you identify, a fact reinforced by the splendidly unpatronising impersonation of teenage drive and confusion by Retallack's twentysomething actors. Tar has broken free of a violent father and a blackmailing mother. When, in a high-energy make-over, Gemma exchanges, item by item, her standard-issue teen outfit for a defiant mini-dress, ripped fishnets and black lipstick ensemble that would make Madonna look a shade unassertive, the audience applauds not the effect (to my eyes, grotesque) but the sheer exultancy of her self-reinvention.

Then, after the interval, a gradually piled-up plate of cold turkey. The fundamentally untrustworthy relations even between fellow addicts, the queasy ethics of having or aborting a baby that would be born a smack- head, the powerlessness of love to redeem since it's hard to see what counts as love in such circumstances: all these issues are tackled head- on. There's a wonderfully staged scene where the foursome, resolved to kick their habit, go on holiday to Wales and the green background slowly bleaches to white and the group, walking on the spot, starts to drift apart, each in their separate hell. A truly cautionary tale.