“Oh, Manchester – so much to answer for!”
The words that echo through the refrain of the final track of The Smiths’ acclaimed debut album are given fresh meaning through a lovingly made play about Manchester’s loneliest son.
Thorn is Tim Keogh’s love letter to The Smiths frontman and a story about a young Stephen Patrick Morrissey (played with great care by Daniel Murphy) and the nearly ubiquitous presence of brutish masculinity throughout the early life of the singer.
This is not the story about how Morrissey became the darling of Manchester’s New Wave music scene but about a young man’s relationship to the women in his life, and Chantell Walker’s dutiful direction neatly draws out the many complex relationships that surround and shape young Stephen.
The play explores many of the themes that characterise The Smiths’ musical career through short vignettes that navigate the earlier years of Morrissey’s life at home and at school. The unwarranted violence at schools across Manchester, a deep love of literature and disdain for party life, and an obsessive introspection of sexuality and self-identity are all part of the fabric of who he became.
The emotional centre of this play is Morrissey’s relationship with the women he lives with and those he loves. His mother (Elizabeth Poole) is an Irish woman living in an English neighbourhood, trying to raise her children in a city that told her that she and ‘her lot’ weren’t welcome, and is played with caring understatement by Poole.
The impressive physical presence of her onstage husband (Adam Waddington) embodies the culture of machismo and careful ordinariness that Morrissey later both lionises and rails against in his public life and career.
His sister, Jackie (Beth Hunter), is a supportive and playful figure in the play, and attentively played by Hunter. His best friend, Karen (Rebecca Phythian), is the emotional refuge point for the young Morrissey and is played with a great deal of playfulness and a deep emotional generosity by Phythian.
A special mention needs to made for the comic brilliance of Luke Halliwell and Daniel Paul, as characters Connolly and Doyle respectively, whose short but frenetic performances as two of Morrissey’s schoolmates deliver the (often much needed) comic relief.
Tim Keogh’s script is punchy and droll: it delivers both the sad sense of isolation a young man and the hopeful promise of escape from the tired, humdrum town.
Although fans of The Smiths may appreciate the many moments of fan service made by Keogh’s regular name-dropping song lyrics into dialogue, too often these moments become trite bulwarks that the actors occasionally trip over.
It isn’t abused to the point of obnoxiousness, however, a great deal more of the experiences that informed many of The Smiths’ musical hits are already embedded in the play. To overstate the play’s crux is unnecessary, but still quite funny.
Overall, Thorn is very enjoyable and does an excellent job of exploring the emotions of a young man wrestling with his own sense of self in a way that remarkably captures the spirit of The Smiths’ music.