Thorn is a play that is set in the harsh and gritty world of the early 1970s. Despite the cold and unwelcoming backdrop, the drama opens with David Bowie appearing on television playing Starman in full make-up and glam attire. It's a moment in popular culture that is often cited as a catalyst by many artists.
"Bowie's appearances on Lift off with Ayshea and Top of the Pops were seismic" insists Thorn writer Tim Keogh "I was 14 in 1972 and was astounded by what I was seeing and hearing: the red hair, the lipstick, the make-up, the clothes and of course the songs. A Starman who literally looked like he had arrived from another planet...
"Of course we had Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry but Bowie was the man" he adds "John Lennon said that as soon as he saw Elvis Presley 'that was it'. For me and my generation it was the appearance of Bowie on TV... 'that was it!'"
This seminal David Bowie event split audiences and opinions across Britain, including those of the Irish-Mancunian Morrissey household. Tim elaborates on his young, enigmatic lead character... "The play is about a boy aged 14 growing up in Manchester in the summer of 1972" he explains "The play is based largely on my own experiences, the songs of The Smiths, and a dash of imagination. It seemed natural to name the character Steven Patrick."
The iconic Bowie appearance happened in an era of limited TV channels. This meant that his sexually ambiguous alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, was beamed into households all over Britain, and was witnessed by millions. It was an unusual, sexually provocative and divisive performance.
It was extremely shocking in the early 1970s; only five years prior to this homosexuality was illegal and punishable by a prison sentence. The seventies were also a bleak period for many working class families. Thorn taps into this austere environment and uses the themes, including the three-day week, power cuts, football hooliganism and the rise of the National Front to help 'paint a vulgar picture'.
Thorn focuses on the juxtaposition of the play's sensitive and artistic central character 'Steven' against this desperate and often vicious backdrop. Although a gifted runner, Steven struggles with male machismo and the aggressive nature of young men.
It leaves him wide open to insult and attack. Bowie and the rise of Glam Rock help to provide an outlet and allow Steven (and other like-minded souls) to be different.
With an alliance formed with his idols, the protagonist feels encouraged to find a means of self-expression, even if doesn't fit in with the alpha-male stereotype.
Buoyed by a new free-thinking attitude, Steven is compelled to explore his own identity, sexuality and unstoppable creative talent. He begins to examine his passion for music and literature, and uses this as a form of escapism.
Thorn is a coming-of-age tale that focuses on self-expression through art and music. The play has a universal theme of adolescent uncertainty and finding a kinship with an expressive act. It is a relatable subject that most will have experienced: whether encountered via Rock n' Roll, Glam, Punk, Hip-Hop...or even a four-piece from Manchester.
Tim describes his own first-hand experience of The Smiths: "I attended the second ever Smiths gig at the long gone Manhattan Sound in Princess Street, Manchester in January '83" he recalls "There were only about thirty people there. I bumped into Johnny Marr last year and told him that I was there. He seemed genuinely chuffed..."
The play will have extra resonance with those of a certain vintage and, of course, those that are familiar with work of Steven Patrick Morrissey. I asked Tim how he would describe the play in a few sentences...
"Thorn explores the difficulties experienced by a sensitive young adolescent growing up in Manchester in the early 1970s and asks the question, amongst others, about what it means to be a man" he says "Has the world changed or have I changed?...Oo-er missus..."
Tim thanks me for my time, but 'the pleasure the privilege was mine'.
Thorn by Tim Keogh
Monday 24th and Tuesday 25th July
Kings Arms 7:30pm £8/£10
For further details – click here
Thorn is part of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival
Words by Ian Leslie