Most people know the story of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division. His life, the band’s rise to fame, and his tragic end were the subject of Anton Corbijn’s bleak but beautiful film Control, and there’s a rather unflattering portrayal of Ian in 24 Hour Party People. New Dawn Fades uses the medium of theatre to tell the story of this musical Mancunian journey.
Rather than reinforcing the enigma of Curtis and Joy Division, author Brian Gorman creates a welcome intimacy through characters we can relate to. The play provides a refreshing insight into the band, uncovering the personal histories rather than presenting them as romanticised icons.
He also provides an unusual narrative perspective, capturing not just the story of a band, but of an era. Parts of the play are presented like an episode of the 1970s TV programme Granada Reports, with Tony Wilson, (played by Lee Joseph with loveable flamboyance and flair), as our guide.
Tony doesn’t waste time in taking us back to Mamucium – the 5th century Roman foundations of Manchester – complete with an interview with Roman general Julius Agricola, played with gusto by Phil Dennison. It seems like a surreal kind of comedy at first but there’s much more to it than that.
Skilled stage management plays a big role. Whilst the history unfolds, we also watch Curtis (played brilliantly by Michael Whittaker) sitting in a corner, scribbling in a notebook. This is the portrait of a deep-thinking man whose lyrics are inspired by cultures of the past – a poignant point which is often overlooked in other retellings of the Joy Division story.
Although Curtis’ historical interests and fascination with ‘outsiders’ may be enigmatic, he was still a ‘normal bloke’ as we see him jumping around just like everybody else at the infamous 1976 Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall. It is here that we see all the crucial characters coming together. The slightly bashful Bernard Sumner is captured very well by Nathaniel McCartney, whilst Peter Hook (Bill Bradshaw) keeps up an entertainingly aggressive swagger (complete with ‘f*** off’ catchphrase).
Later joined by Ian and the apparently happy-go-lucky Stephen Morris (Matthew Melbourne), the boys go through the unpredictable angst of being a band – money problems, poor publicity, creative frustration.
Yet comic relief is never far away, thanks to Sean Mason in particular. I was amazed by this actor’s ability to assume an array of identities from ‘mad scientist’ producer Martin Hannett to lampooned music journalist Paul Morley via Friedrich Engels. Real versatility.
The small cast comes together to tell a story with an inevitable tragic conclusion yet celebrating the band members’ energy, enthusiasm and identities. They are clearly passionate and deeply involved with their characters and really get under the their skin, expressing both the highs and lows.
Not only talented actors but musically capable too, the cast came together just before the interval to perform a powerful rendition of Shadowplay.
This was the band’s breakthrough performance on Tony Wilson’s So It Goes with Michael Whittaker giving a stunning performance as Curtis. Throwing himself into the song not just as an actor but a clear appreciator of this historic moment, Whittaker sang with eerie depth and emotion with dance moves which seem to echo the panic of an epileptic seizure.
The play explores the raw realities behind Joy Division – epilepsy, family problems, adultery, drugs. These pressures accumulate and we see through the moving breakdown of the relationship between Curtis and his wife, Debbie. Natalie Perry gives a movingly convincing portrayal of a woman in love with the man rather than just the music, emphasizing the human emotions, love and life behind Joy Division, not just the legacy.
Hence why the final scenes are so moving, with Curtis’ suicide taking place surrounded by the banalities of domestic life: the washing line, the record still spinning on the turntable.
Watching New Dawn Fades I cried, I laughed and I felt so incredibly fortunate to be part of the history of this magnificent city. Brilliant.
The Dancehouse, 10 Oxford Rd, Manchester M1 5QA
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