Writer: Brian Gorman
Director: Sarah Van Parys
Reviewer: Rich Jevons
In his interview with The Public Reviews,writer and co-producer of New Dawn Fades, Brian Gorman, predicts a production that relies on our imagination rather than an elaborate set or plentiful props. Indeed, true to his word, this is a pared-down piece that starts with simply a row of six chairs on stage and behind a screen for back projection.
After a hard-to-match rôle Steve Koogan made all his own in the film 24 Hour Party People, Lee Joseph’s performance as the irrepressible Granada presenter Tony Wilson is impeccable. Not a caricature but still playful and frequently hilarious, he takes us on a whistle-stop tour through Manchester’s history. The first strand of the epic tale starts with 1st Century AD Roman General Agricola (played with great gusto by Phil Dennison) who shouts out his commands for a fortress called Mamucium.
Wilson’s narrative is linked to Joy Division’s vocalist Ian Curtis as he mulls over the history of his birthplace and here remarks: “Everything has a beginning”. Throughout the play the action is cleverly connected to lines from Curtis’ often ambiguous and transcendent lyrics, to great effect. This is a well-researched and inventively written work in terms of social history.
But it also tells the tale of Joy Division, four Manchester lads in the midst of the punk and post-punk explosion in the city’s music scene. There are some great supporting rôles for Sean Croke as Bernard Sumner, Bill Bradshaw as Peter Hook, and Matthew Melbourne as Stephen Morris, all well cast and delivered with great dexterity.
Natalie Perry as the only female rôle as Deborah, Curtis’ wife, plays it with verve and veracity, as she desperately tries to support her partner in his creative dreams. This is despite the ongoing isolation and alienation she sees encroaching more and more into her loved one’s life. Back to the history (it switches seamlessly) Sean Mason makes a good show of being Engels, assuring the workers he would improve their lot through his Communist writings, and we see projected the pub he hung out in.
The Buzzcocks feature as an example of the DIY attitude punk encouraged as well as the legendary Sex Pistols gigs, which many still lie about being at to gain street cred. The show’s co-producer Giles Bastow also appears as Joy Division’s manager Rob Gretton and persuades Wilson to set up the Factory Records label. Even a pursuer of the black arts and purported alchemist, John Dee, is brought into the narrative (he spent some time in Elizabethan Manchester) reminding us of the darkness behind some of Curtis’ lyrics.
Act One climaxes with a scintillating live rendition of ‘Shadowplay’ with a real revelation in Michael Whittaker’s performance of Curtis, eerily realistic both in voice and movement, again without caricature, it just feels accurate and authentic with each manic thrust and fling.
This review is no spoiler but suffice it to say that Act Two depicts the increasing pressures on the troubled Curtis, both as an artist and a family man. He doesn’t want to let the rest of the band down or his long-suffering wife, but fate plays a tragic card here (in Gorman’s graphic novel of New Dawn Fades simply depicted with a black crow on a telephone).
In the build-up to this it is clear that Whittaker has done his homework in acting out an epileptic fit to the point that you almost feel like jumping on stage to help him through it. There is comic relief too with Sean Mason’s jovial depiction of producer Martin Hannett, and Hook comments that the band can hardly recognise themselves after he has transformed their rawness into a bleak and sparse sound.
The tears of sadness start to flow with Whittaker reading the lyrics of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, an anthem for a doomed romance. But overall the show is far from morbid or simply nostalgia, rather it celebrates a great artist and an era of unstoppable energy. Gorman’s writing is absolutely superb and even the anoraks won’t find a wrong reference. While Sarah Van Parys’ direction is assured and well-balanced and the AV and sound design by Giles Bastow works well to provide snippets of visuals and music to highlight certain points without being overly relied upon.
It was particularly good to see City Varieties Music Hall so full to such an alternative production, proving there is a discerning audience in Leeds looking for such fare. Highly recommended for both its fascinating historical depth and poignant lyrical beauty.