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New Dawn Fades: A Play About Joy Division & Manchester

@ RNCM Theatre, Manchester, 29/09/22

Article by Jacob Ainsworth, 19.

It could not have been easy for writer Brian Gorman to adapt the story of legendary band Joy Division into a stage play. In fact, I imagine it was a mammoth task. Joy Division is a band that seems to be endlessly mythologised. Almost as soon as lead singer Ian Curtis tragically took his own life in May 1980, the tale of the band has cemented itself in Manchester’s musical heritage as an intriguing, beguiling and, at times, baffling tale of working class self-belief, recklessness, searing artistic ambition and looming self-destruction. The late Ian Curtis has become an iconic, almost messianic, figure of indie rock legend, and therefore surely cannot be dramatised without an immense pressure put on those who are attempting to bring him – as well as the other eccentric and individual figures of the Joy Division mythos – to life. However, fear not. Writer Brian Gorman and co, with an evident mastery of blunt, Northern comedy, an avid appreciation for past storyteller’s unique visions and a moving adoration of Curtis’ lyricism, have created an utterly triumphant celebration of one of Manchester’s most beloved bands.

One of New Dawn Fades: A Play About Joy Division & Manchester’s biggest strengths is the way in which it seamlessly melds comedy with tragedy. More often than not, Joy Division get pigeonholed as proto-goth pioneers – melancholy, gloomy, depressing. While of course there’s a glimmer of truth in such labels – just listen to the alienating suicide note that is sophomore album Closer and such glimmer becomes clear – it is not the be all and end all of the group. Yes, their story is one of urban decay, illness and suffering, but Gorman’s script (as well as the cast’s superbly natural line delivery) works to include the other, often over-looked, aspects of the band’s journey. A band which, more often than not, took the piss, made countless mistakes and – for lack of better word – was kind of a ramshackle. New Dawn Fades… takes us through each of the band’s missteps – accusations of Nazism (‘get rid of that Nazi shit!’), loans from the bank wasted on an unlistenable EP and a disastrous attempt at a Northern Soul cover (in which Curtis – played by Joseph Walsh – was ordered to sound ‘more like James Brown’). During all this unprofessional, punk-inspired calamity, we as the audience can’t help but laugh along. Gorman uses comedy as a bedrock on which tragedy can stem out of, not too dissimilar from Michael Winterbottom’s cult classic 24 Hour Party People (Winterbottom, 2002, UK). Embracing the swagger and left-field wit of the aforementioned piece of exhilarating Britpop Cinema, Gorman injects his take with a similar flair. Tony Wilson (Al Donohoe) guides us through each one of the band’s blunders, charming the audience with a wonderfully campy, Steve-Coogan-inspired (how couldn’t you be?) performance. His narrative voice invites us into the world of a band which feels true to the North-West of England. Not over mythologised; not sensationalised, but real.

And yet, in spite of the play’s humour, New Dawn Fades… doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to the tragedy of a 23-year-old-singer’s suicide – one struggling with mental illness and epilepsy, juggling a mistress and a family, and facing the increasingly overwhelming responsibility of a band’s career in soaring upward trajectory. Throughout the aforementioned comedy, tragedy always looms. The actors’ boisterous performances (best exemplified by Bill Bradshaw’s curse-filled take on bassist Peter Hook) are always being watched by a dangling string of light, eerily resembling a noose hanging idly in the darkness. Our laughter as an audience, albeit genuine and resounding, always contains a sickly seed of dread as we watch an alienated young man move closer towards his tragic death – a fate which seems terrifyingly inescapable the more responsibilities and hardships that are put onto his shoulders.

A highlight of the play is a moment in which Curtis sings the vocal to the track Isolation, however Stephen Morris’ propulsive drum pattern, Peter Hook’s hypnotic bass line and Bernard Sumner’s stuttering synth washes are nowhere to be found. We are left only with the words:

Mother I’ve tried, please believe me

I’m doing the best that I can

I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through

I’m ashamed of the person I am

In the final line of the above verse, Curtis’ distinctive baritone breaks down into frustrated tears – a moment which seems to capture the downward spiralling of a young man unable to get help, as well as the bleakly beautiful lyrical voice of one of Manchester’s finest poets. His face becomes tortured, contorted, afraid. It’s a moment that owes to Sam Riley’s immensely expressive performance in Control (Corbijn, 2007, UK), and yet feels dramatically unique to the stage. The effect is unbelievably moving. Our laughter is gone, quickly replaced with an icy silence. Here, Gorman and Walsh achieve the impossible: Ian Curtis is simultaneously depicted as both an ordinary young man from Macclesfield as he indeed once was, as well as the ever-mythologised tragic, Byronic figure that he has since become.

A review of New Dawn Fades: A Play About Joy Division & Manchester would not be complete if I failed to mention the other titular subject of the play – Manchester. While it is definitely the story of a band, New Dawn Fades… also presents its story as one inherently shaped, certainly influenced and arguably even designed, by its setting. Joy Division are presented as part of a greater socio-historic spider web via an innovative use of historical asides. These asides, some delivered by Gorman himself, inform the audience of incidents in Manchester’s history, implying a greater narrative, far grander than that of simply a band. Over the play’s duration, Joy Division’s mythos becomes irrevocably linked with the history of the city in which they inhabit – a city characterised not just by sprawling industrialism and scientific breakthroughs, but also by disturbing incidents of bloodshed and moral bankruptcy. The simple, contained and – most importantly – human story of a band’s rise and fall every so often gives way to a narrative far more complex, hinting at a broader tapestry of Mancunian history, art and culture. Curtis’ tragic suicide seems to be firmly indented not only upon alternative music history, but implicitly upon Manchester’s own complicated and fast-continuing heritage. Or, in more concise terms, New Dawn Fades’ somehow subtly works as a tiny part of a cultural epic. Thoughtful, subversive, unique – please, please, please just see New Dawn Fades… when the production is next on. You won’t regret it.

I thought it would be apt for me to conclude with some insight from writer Brian Gorman, whom I had the pleasure of meeting for this article. We talked, amongst other topics, briefly about the ending of the play – a respectful collection of images of significant Factory Records figures who have since sadly passed (Ian Curtis, Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton & Martin Hannett), soundtracked by the last Joy Division song ever written – but, ever so significantly, the first New Order song ever released – Ceremony.

This is why events unnerve me

They find it all, a different story

Notice whom for wheels are turning

Turn again and turn towards this time

Brian chatted to me about the song choice, telling me that he thought it was nice to end what otherwise would be a very mournful narrative conclusion with the chance of a new beginning, a chance of overcoming loss, a chance of revival. New Dawn Fades… ends on a spine-tingling, bitter-sweet note as the audience become reminded of the talent that sadly has been lost, but also the magical, life-changing music which has since been created. We stand up, we applaud, we wipe away a tear and we leave the theatre with the knowledge that, in spite of tragedy, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris forged a new, unique and fruitful career for themselves as New Order. But that? That’s a whole other story.

Oh, I’ll break them down, no mercy shown

Heaven knows it’s got to be this time

Avenues all lined with trees

Picture me and then you start watching

Watching forever, forever

Watching love grow, forever

Letting me know, forever

Writer’s note:

Special thanks to Brian Gorman for giving me the opportunity to see the play a second time for The Lyric Lounge Review and for a lovely chat about all things Joy Division. Please buy his excellent graphic novel New Dawn Fades, on which the play was based upon. Another special thanks to actor Joseph Walsh for being so humble and conversational with me after the show. Lastly, special thanks to my dad, Paul Ainsworth, who’s passion for Joy Division, Ian Curtis and mental health awareness continues to inspire me.

Editor of LLR since 2005

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