In Haunt

It is 40 years since Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures was released – a debut LP from four young lads who came together in 1970s Manchester as the punk movement started to take hold.  Now the band name and LP cover – actually the image of signals from a dying star– seem showered over popular culture, merchandise, clothing… but what about the narrative, the gritty details and the layers of history that laid foundation for this remarkable development? Delving into that, with wit and character, is ‘New Dawn Fades – A play about Joy Division and Manchester’. It runs at The Dancehouse Manchester until Saturday 14 September, then Sheffield Leadmill and Jacksons Lane Theatre, London.

By Sean Mason

Producing a play about such a topic faces the inevitable pitfall – how do you possibly dramatize a story that so many have their own version of? The answer of New Dawn Fades? Engage with history, celebrate an energetic cast and create real public interaction both on and off the stage. Surely that is the direction of forward-thinking theatre? Written by the innovative Brian Gorman, directed by Sean Mason and Giles Bastow, produced by the local All Roads Meet – this is a living piece of artistry made in Manchester which doesn’t just put the community at its core, it has created its own community over time. 

Photographers such as Shay Rowan and Neil Winward have documented developments, broadcasters have given their support across the media and the vastly talented Brian Gorman himself has also created vivid artwork to accompany the show, which also has its own hand-drawn graphic novel (as previously covered on HAUNT here). All adding to the palimpsest that is the Joy Division story, in an enthralling, dynamic way.

 I have watched the show (which started life in 2013) in its various incarnations for a number of years now, and it importantly continues to evolve – steering away from overt sentimentalism of the past by instead unlocking new stories and sides to character each time. Its ongoing story was also secured by public backing, with many getting behind the production to show their interest in this year’s tour – now involving afternoon performances for the very first time. New Dawn Fades builds a narrative all of its own – continuing to create, rather than peddling its own past. It sticks two fingers up at accusations of sentimentalism in its very nature of being. Brilliant.

By Neil Winward

And considering the 40th anniversary of the LP from which the play takes its name, 2019’s edition provided an enhanced and seemingly expanded version. This year incorporates the insight of the legendary TJ Davidson as adviser (read more about this in a previous article here) – the former owner of what were the TJ Davidson rehearsal studios on Little Peter Street, where numerous bands from the punk era practiced and Joy Division’s iconic ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was filmed.  Rather than just being an associated name, Davidson’s input was evident too – intricate and yet impactful details emerging in setting and story. The studio space itself was discussed in light of how the surrounding area was once used to hold the horses used by the yeomanry during The Peterloo Massacre. A reference which seemed all the more apt and profound given that 2019 is also the 200th anniversary of Peterloo in Manchester.

Sensitivity to history and an innovative way of staging it is indeed a skill of New Dawn Fades. As rather than just documenting the story of a band, the script is interwoven with historic context which hits home the remarkable nature of ‘the shock city’ the Manchester music scene grew from. For the first time ever, writer Brian Gorman made his debut appearance in the play itself, taking on the historic characters of the Roman General Agricola (who ordered the founding of Mamucium, the foundations of what became Manchester) and Dr John Dee, infamous occultist and adviser to Elizabeth I. This appearance was made via pre-recorded video footage, beamed onto a large screen at the back of the stage – a dynamic I feel worked well, highlighting the layers of voices and technologies Manchester has been built upon. The Dancehouse stage certainly supported this, and the play itself has a long-term connection with the venue – a grand and inspiring space on Oxford Road that still retains its own air of intrigue. Very apt, I feel – and atmospherically lit to boot.

By Sean Mason

But who was in the spotlight? A particular point worth noting about New Dawn Fades is its vibrant and varied cast – with some members of the production involved since its inception over 5 years ago, as well as newer and younger members. Bringing this array of pieces of history and people together seemingly requires a skilled script and mediator – delivered deftly through the character of Tony Wilson, turning the perspective of the play into a kind of version of his Granada Reports. The character of Wilson is played with charming flair by Al Donohoe, driving the energy of the production forwards whilst retaining the swagger, stature and almost feline-flamboyance of ‘Mr Manchester’ himself. On top of this, Donohoe also has to deliver various newsbites of historical fact threaded in about the city – surely no easy task to couple with this deep characterisation, but done very well. It also seeks to make the audience pay more attention to the place around them, to combat overt-nostalgia through actual, ongoing awareness.

Another performance of special note is that from Joe Walsh, who plays Ian Curtis. Having seen Walsh take on the character of Curtis for the first time last year, I was impressed then with the enthusiasm and deft down-to-earthness with which Walsh brought to the character. 2019’s performance however showed a whole new amplified intensity to his approach, emphasizing both how animated Ian Curtis was as a man and friend, but also the turbulence of his angst and exhaustion. Rather than projecting an idealised figure, Walsh worked his delivery - right down to the tension of tone - into expressing an oft-stubborn and complex young man. Themes such as financial difficulty, epilepsy, infidelity and drug-taking were encountered sensitively – with respect for reality – rather than provocatively: an important aspect, I feel.

By Shay Rowan

Creatively examining the complexities as well as intricacies of everyday life as well as history is what this play balances well after all, as underlined by the characterisation of Debbie Curtis – the woman Ian married when he was just 19 and she 18, in 1975. Played by Leah Gray-Scaife, Debbie’s often obscured story – of tenderness, domestic life and the attempts to save a man she loved – are exposed. Gray-Scaife, who also joined the production last year, displays a real intuitiveness to character, communicating a warmth – even in the difficult circumstances the characters face – that heightens the show’s empathetic hit.  

When Walsh and Gray-Scaife come together to deliver the lines of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ this verges on the edge of predictability perhaps, yet manages to steer clear… as the line ‘Love will tear us apart’ is never spoken. Instead the emotional fragmentation is emphasised by the skilled acting – and this extends to the band members and how they are all highly-charged individuals, as well as part of a big-impact story. An amusingly aggressive Peter Hook (Bill Bradshaw), charmingly sensitive Bernard Sumner (Harry McLafferty) and an entertainingly easy-going Stephen Morris (Mathew Melbourne) are played with empathy and awareness of human lives beyond the myth-making.

By Neil Winward

And not forgetting, this empathy involves humour. The risk of revisiting ‘The Joy Division Story’ includes the oft-creative tendency to over-dwell on the myth of the tortured artist, to express of accumulation of angst and sorrow. New Dawn Fades certainly doesn’t shy away from emotion... but humour is a key example of this too. Co-director Sean Mason displays remarkable versatility within the play – a character-swapping figure capable of embodying various individuals: including the music journalist Paul Morley, Mick Middles, the eccentric producer Martin Hannett and even a hysterical Prestwich accountant! That he manages this with distinctive consistency to each character is a sure testament to skill and allows for plenty of amusement amongst the audience. Fellow co-director Giles Bastow plays a foul-mouthed and no-nonsense manager Rob Gretton, highlighting the hard times that the band were often up against, without anything being over-played. A gritty gruffness that brings another unique individual to stage.

New Dawn Fades refreshingly does not take itself too seriously – there is room for people to draw on their own stories, it engages playfully with stereotypes of characters without ever attempting to present them as definitive. A diverse tongue-in-cheekness that some might say is ‘very Manchester’. Yet it also upholds essential points of sincerity – and does so remarkably well. A sensitivity to setting is one: details such as TJ Davidson’s rehearsal studios, The Russell Club in Hulme, 77 Barton Street in Macclesfield.

By Sean Mason

The play also incorporates a feature many would have steered clear from… a recreation of some classic Joy Division tracks, including a rendition of ‘Shadowplay’ as really happened on Granada Television. Given that these are a group of actors rather than professional musicians, this suggests that there is the potential for a plenty to go wrong, too much going on, a badly-botched job. Yet all I can say is that their delivery of the music left me breathless: Walsh working his body and voice into the feel and thunder of the sound, right down to Curtis' frantic, haunting dance style – expressing raw power and crucial vulnerability. The band members brought a blistering energy… and underlined a key element that the whole cast seem to have bang on: body language. Every actor held a powerful, involved physical presence – making the big Dancehouse stage seem remarkably super-charged and intense. This is an achievement.

Involving the aspect of live music highlights how New Dawn Fades is a production willing to take risks: it has a real punkish grit that is particularly fitting. It is a patchwork, a palimpsest, a piece of seething history that does not go quietly. The real joy of this play – a little like the ethos of Joy Division itself – is that it is an array of local people coming together, to graft, to forge something and to connect. History touches from a distance, whilst we as an audience see an inspired future for the talents who have joined to create it. And that is an ongoing, wonderful quality worth celebrating.

by Neil Winward

By Emily Oldfield

Image 1: by Sean Mason

Image 2: by Neil Winward

Image 3: by Sean Mason

Image 4: by Shay Rowan

Image 5: by Neil Winward

Image 6: by  Sean Mason

Image 7: by Neil Winward

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