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Beyond Wigan Pier - the story behind the George Orwell musical

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 April 2018

Rehearsals for Beyond The Pier are underway at The Edge

Rehearsals for Beyond The Pier are underway at The Edge

John Cocks

A unique community musical in Wigan is taking one of George Orwell’s most famous works from the page to the stage and making a song and dance about social inequality.

Producer, Alan Gregory, with Dance Director, Donna Harrison in rehearsals for Beyond The Pier Musical at The Edge, WiganProducer, Alan Gregory, with Dance Director, Donna Harrison in rehearsals for Beyond The Pier Musical at The Edge, Wigan

There’s not much that David Bowie didn’t achieve during his stellar career; he had a string of hit singles in his various guises, made numerous film and television appearances, and won scores of awards. One of his songs is even being blasted into the far reaches of space from the radio of a red sports car being driven by a mannequin in a space suit – and that’s not the sort of honour that’s handed out lightly.

But there was one thing on his to-do list that he never managed and where he failed, Wigan’s Alan Gregory has succeeded. The estate of Eric Blair – better known as George Orwell – declined Bowie’s request to write a musical about the writer, but they responded more positively to Alan.

His show Beyond Wigan Pier, which has its premiere in the town this month, is a ground-breaking community musical which charts the town’s progress in the years since Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier was published.

Alan, a pianist and music teacher, was prompted to write the show after deaths of his parents and wife. ‘I spent years doing jobs I hated and when my parents died suddenly and unexpectedly within four months of each other, and my wife was diagnosed with cancer, I decided that life was too short not to enjoy it,’ he said.

John Norcott,  Olivia Garcia, Jason Butler and Layla Anne in rehearsal for Beyond The Pier Musical at The Edge, WiganJohn Norcott, Olivia Garcia, Jason Butler and Layla Anne in rehearsal for Beyond The Pier Musical at The Edge, Wigan

‘I have always played the piano and sung – when I saw my school careers adviser I said I wanted to be a concert pianist or an opera singer, but they didn’t seem to be career options open to a lad from Wigan at that time. I ended up doing a law degree and a succession of jobs. At the age of 48 I packed in my job and went back to university. My wife of 20 years, Winifred, died on the day I graduated and I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had music. I feel that it saved my life.’

Alan taught music in schools and worked as an accompanist for ballet and dance schools, and the Hammond School in Chester. He also started work in music for social services and at the Sunshine House community centre in Scholes, close to the site of the tripe shop where George Orwell stayed.

He was there as plans were being made for a visit by members of the Orwell Society to mark last year’s 80th anniversary of the publication of the Road to Wigan Pier and offered to write a couple of songs to entertain the visitors.

‘Orwell’s son Richard Blair said he would like to publish them,’ Alan added. ‘I think he was quite taken aback when I said no but I thought if I could write two, I could write 12 and that could make up a musical. Until that point I hadn’t read the book, but when I did the characters jumped out at me and reminded me of people I had met.

‘I wanted to create a musical worthy of the West End with Wiganers, for Wiganers and by Wiganers but I knew that it would be virtually impossible to get the show staged so I decided to turn it into a community enterprise. I care passionately about the community and the people in Wigan. I work with disabled and disadvantaged people and I want to change perceptions of the town – we’re not all pie eating, ferret owning, flat cap wearing lay-abouts.’

The show is based on an imaginary relationship between Orwell and a young girl he met in the town who was cleaning drains, and follows them through the next decades to the current day. It will premiere on April 27 at The Edge, a new 1,000-seat theatre not far from the original Wigan Pier, a long-demolished coal-loading jetty on the Leeds and Liverpool canal.

‘I had to slightly alter the story to introduce a love interest and the Orwell Society gave me permission to do that. The main female character is called Winnie, as a tribute to my wife. She was the love of my life. She was the most marvellous woman in the world.’

Winnie will be played by former X Factor contestant and Eurovision hopeful Olivia Garcia, with the role of George played by Scott Chapman, a popular name on the local cabaret scene, and Orwell’s adopted son Richard will be on stage reading some of his father’s words. The show will also feature performances by the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Neil Dunlop, Tim Cooke and Les Hilton in rehearsal for Beyond The Pier Musical at The Edge, WiganNeil Dunlop, Tim Cooke and Les Hilton in rehearsal for Beyond The Pier Musical at The Edge, Wigan

‘I took all my pension out of the Post Office to fund myself doing this and it’s money I can ill afford,’ Alan said. ‘I have spent nearly all of it doing this. It’s a gamble, but it’s one I hope will pay off.’

Alan, the CEO of Pianos, Pies and Pirouettes, a social enterprise company that received worldwide publicity last year for introducing Wigan Warriors rugby players to ballet, is now hoping the musical will help give a new generation of Wigan’s youth the chances that were denied to him.

‘I want no other young person to be in the position I was in, with no opportunities in music open to me. Any money this makes will go to the Winifred Gregory Fund which I want to create for children who could never afford to go to places like the Hammond School.

‘If this show is successful I will go the Arts Council for funding to make it a full stage show. The concert version ends when George leaves, but the second act will be what happens in Wigan after that. If we get the funding, I will write the second act – it’s all in my head at the moment. The spirits of George and Winnie return to Wigan to see if the social divide still exists.

Francesca Fazackerley (12), Neil Dunlop, Debbie Mulligan and her daughter, Isabel (8)  in rehearsal for Beyond The Pier Musical at The Edge, WiganFrancesca Fazackerley (12), Neil Dunlop, Debbie Mulligan and her daughter, Isabel (8) in rehearsal for Beyond The Pier Musical at The Edge, Wigan

‘I think it might take off – after all, who would have thought anyone would watch a show about revolutionary students in 18th century France, but everyone’s seen Les Mis.’

Tickets are available for the premiere from crowdfunder.co.uk/beyond-wigan-pier-1. There are different levels of philanthropic ticket – £100 will pay for four people who couldn’t afford tickets to attend the show, while a £75 VIP ticket allows you to come to the theatre for a reception, a speech from Richard Blair, and pays for two people who would otherwise not be able to attend the show.

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