Salford Arts Theatre.
20 April 2018.
Tim Keogh’s Thorn begins with a young man transfixed, and ultimately transformed, by the dazzling sight of David Bowie performing Starman on Top of the Pops. The year is 1973, and that ‘boy’ is Steven Patrick Morrissey. While for most of his adult life he will choose to be known purely by that surname, this is the story of the teenager called Steven. Son, brother, friend, classmate and music fan. “The boy with the thorn in his side“.
Steven’s 1970s world feels small and insular. The set, all washed out shades of brown, evokes a relatively spartan life. The tin with the ‘housekeeping’ money, a telephone on the coffee table and the compact three-piece suite on to which everyone squeezes to watch television together as a family. No wonder Ziggy Stardust’s sudden appearance within the dowdy domesticity of that household feels like a thrilling eye-opening shock to the system. As if to emphasise that contrast, the alluring tunes of Bowie and Marc Bolan work their glam rock magic between the subsequent scenes of daily grind.
Thorn tracks a teenage boy’s struggle to emerge fully formed from a close-knit, tightly regulated working class community. There’s constant pressure to conform to what is expected of you, and the Catholic church is a pervasive presence in both school and family life. But the play also captures the relentless demands to be a particular type of man, and how toxic this can be to a confused young adolescent like Steven. How to be a ‘real man’, a ‘man’s man’, ‘macho’? Life is a tortuous drip, drip of peer pressure, name-calling, tricky questions about football and women, shaming and thuggery. It feels genuinely corrosive. For Steven, even home offers no escape, with his father unable to show affection and constantly worried what his mates down the pub will think of his “sensitive” son.
In contrast, women play a strong supportive role in Steven’s life. His protective mother encourages his love of books, his sister provides a sympathetic ear, and his closest friend is a woman.
Life in 1970s Stretford was very different from now. Ena Sharples is in Coronation Street, Steven buys his shirts from Stolen from Ivor in the Underground Market and his teenage nights out are spent at Pips on Fennel Street. It’s a Manchester that is lost to time but Thorn manages to create some sense of that place and its mindsets. There are hints of a changing world. Steven’s mother devours feminist writing and his father comments on more ‘coloured’ faces on television. The play is keen to emphasise his mother’s liberal perspective on life (especially on racial discrimination), but the focus on Steven Patrick’s early years means it doesn’t have to confront the spectre of the older Morrissey’s increasingly unpalatable views.
Keogh’s script (which won him the Best Newcomer award at last year’s Greater Manchester Fringe Festival) is strongest when dealing with moments of domesticity, intimacy and awkwardness. His dialogue feels natural, his characterisation subtle and rounded. Occasionally, the play drifts into situations that feel contrived or too clearly signal that they are Making A Point. A confrontation between Steven’s mother and his headmaster is particularly jarring in tone.
Fortunately Chantell Walker’s adept direction flatters Keogh’s script and smooths out its minor humps and bumps. The play squeezes a lot in to just over 70 minutes, and Walker teases out vivid performances from the nine strong cast. Some of the parts are fleeting, but that doesn’t mean characters aren’t well drawn both in terms of script and performance. In supporting roles, Luke Halliwell and Daniel Paul make an impression as two gormless but good-natured classmates, as does Rebecca Phythian as Karen, a gobby fellow music fan and close friend. Beth Hunter is very funny but also touchingly affectionate as Steven’s flighty sister Jackie and the scenes between her and Daniel Cassidy (as Steven) are nicely judged. However it’s Cassidy’s understated performance that dominates the production, managing to convey a tormented mix of teenage bravado and vulnerability.
We know that the shyness, unrequited love and confused sexuality that Steven experiences in the play will all eventually find a home in the music that Morrissey creates. However, Keogh admirably avoids dropping apt quotes from Smiths’ songs into the script. His writing ably charts Steven’s transition from a boy struggling to put his feelings into words to a young man more confident about expressing himself. The sentences, that tumble from his mouth, become gradually more fluid and sometimes florid. Markedly, it is only in the show’s final moments, with Steven about to meet a “friend of a friend” called Johnny, that he says something that can be found within a Smiths’ song. That lyric becomes the last eight words of the play.
By stopping at that point, where young Steven is about to become the pop star Morrissey, Keogh’s play retains its power to exert a more universal pull. Thorn is not an exercise in starfuckery. A heartfelt study of adolescence, it has as much (if not more) to say about misfits, music, masculinity and Manchester as it does about the formative years of a famous wordsmith. The link to Morrissey does though allow the play’s reflections on the transformative power of music to operate on several levels.
Thorn starts in front of a television in 1973 but in many ways it also begins ten years later in 1983. The parallels are unspoken but for many in the audience they will be strongly felt. The sofa, the television and Top of the Pops remain fixed points but the view is blurred. A flash of orange hair. A quiff. Make up. Sparkly necklace. Glittery catsuit. Flowing shirt. Arm draped around Mick Ronson. Waving a bunch of gladioli. Starman. This Charming Man. Two gloriously unique performances that both somehow offered generations of young men (and women) permission to be different, to become themselves.
Images by Shay Rowan