The May bank holiday weekend will be a big one for the Jones brothers of Blackwood, south Wales. On Saturday 28 May Nicky Jones, better known as Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers, will play a triumphant homecoming gig at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium, the climax of the band’s 20th anniversary Everything Must Go tour.
The night before, his older brother, Patrick Jones, will premiere his new play for the National Theatre of Wales at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre. Before I Leave is a play about a community choir of dementia patients with music from the Sex Pistols, Johnny Cash and Queen, and a new title song, specially written by Wire and his bandmate James Dean Bradfield.
Jones, a poet and playwright who has toured with Billy Bragg, was inspired by a visit to Cwm Taf, a choir for people living with dementia that meets once a week at Merthyr Tydfil rugby club. “I just sat in and listened, thinking there’s such a beautiful story here. People’s lives are fading away and yet song and this collective gathering brings them back to life. I went away and started scribbling,” he says.
As he began to research the topic, he discovered hundreds of similar choirs around Britain. “I thought it was a story that needed to be told. It breaks down barriers about how we perceive Alzheimer’s and dementia. Of course it is tragic and brutal but people live with it and they live well; they sing, talk, laugh and tell jokes.”
The resulting “play with songs” is a tragicomic hymn to the power of community and music, in the mode of feelgood films like Pride and Brassed Off. “I set out to write something which was really uplifting about the human spirit but that also showed the darker side,” says Jones. “As soon as I tell people I’m writing a play about dementia, everyone goes a bit misty-eyed. I was conscious of that – you could really sentimentalise the issue.”
Jones speaks from experience. Two years ago, his uncle was diagnosed with vascular dementia; he died within six months. “I would go and visit him and it just wasn’t him. Neither he, nor his family, had the chance to belong to a choir or sing or have some respite. It was all very dark, very sad.”
The play also draws on Jones’ conversations with dementia patients and their carers. One younger woman, in her 50s, told him that as soon as her husband was diagnosed, their friends began to avoid them. In the play, she becomes Dyanne, who struggles with her husband Joe’s early-onset dementia and her rage at his diagnosis. There’s also a nod to Welsh history in the characters of Rocky, an ex-miner, and Evan, a policeman, who clashed during the strike 30 years ago but now sing together, almost in harmony.
The play, directed by Matthew Dunster (Hangmen), will be performed by a professional cast and a community choir of people aged 65 and over, who will join in on the rousing Welsh rugby hymn “Calon Lan” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” among other numbers.
The central song “Before I Leave” (“Before I leave I’ll give you some happiness/The laughter and pain/ The good that remains”) was written by Wire and Dean Bradfield and is a rousing, choral, recognisably Manics number. “I think it’s the best they’ve written for a while, to be honest,” says Jones.
“As soon as we came together, we knew it was going to work,” agrees Wire. “There’s plenty of times we dump stuff, because we know it’s just a load of rubbish. But this just really worked. I still believe, sadly and rather romantically, there’s something inside a lyric and a piece of music that can lift you out of darkness and trigger off a memory, that can make you feel better.”
It is not the first time the Jones brothers have worked together; Jones’ poetry appears on Manics songs like “Crucifix Kiss” and Wire has written music for his brother’s poems in the past.
I haven’t got the energy or the humanity to do what Pat does. That’s the main difference between the two of us. My brother is much more the humanity side of the family. I’m the misanthropic side
“I like the discipline of lyrics. I’ve tried writing books and plays and I’m quite happy to admit that it’s way beyond me,” says Wire. “I haven’t got the energy or the humanity to do what Pat does. That’s the main difference between the two of us. My brother is much more the humanity side of the family. I’m the misanthropic side.”
Both brothers share a belief in the power of art to change the world. Before I Leave is deliberately set in a community library that is on the brink of closure, something that Jones feels very strongly about. “I’ve always been drawn to artists who try and bear witness to their society,” he says. “I’ve learned to try and find a happy medium between that and telling a good story without shouting.”
Wire is currently touring Everything Must Go; the seminal, socially engaged album turns 20 this year. “It’s made us feel what a brave time it was to get a song with the opening line ‘Libraries gave us power’ to sell 100,000 copies in the first week. It feels like an era that has sadly disappeared,” he says.
Next up is Euro 2016 for which the Manics have written the Welsh team song, “Together Strong (C’mon Wales).”
“It’s a classic football song but first and foremost we had to make it good enough to be on a Manics album.”
He applied the same principle to the song for Before I Leave. There are no other Manics songs in the play. “I think sometimes people associate me with being some weird part of the Manics,” says Jones. “Like the poor other Gallagher brother. I struggle with that. Me and Nick work together but I thought it’s best to keep it to the one song specially written for the play. And it works beautifully.”