The Factory Records world is a very sexy and attractive one. Combining the punk and alternative scenes, bands such as A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column and of course Joy Division sprang out of the record label. Dominating characters such as Bez, Peter Hook and Martin Hannett all circled around Factory Records manager and local TV presenter Tony Wilson’s centrifugal presence. Numerous books, films and shows have attempted to define this era. Post punk, pre acid, it was fertile ground to be treading. New Dawn Fades is another re-imagining of this era, and is no less arresting.
Tongue in cheek in part (referring to the infamous Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall, Wilson drawls “I should know, I was there. Honest”), heart wrenching in others, it tells the story of Joy Division’s formation, and ultimate dissolution following the suicide of singer Ian Curtis. This is no mean feat – there is a weight of expectation riding on this play from fans new and old of Joy Division and the Manchester scene who comprise the sell-out audience.
Writer Brian Gorman is heavily invested in this world and his research shows. This play, based on his upcoming graphic novel about the band, is littered with references and recognisable characters. It’s clear that the actors are relishing the challenge of bringing the story of one of Manchester’s most iconic bands to the stage, and that infectious enjoyment spreads to an eager audience.
Lee Joseph (The Best) takes on the mantle of the larger-than-life Tony Wilson. Joseph is your guide at he takes you through the founding of two cities and the formation of four young lads into a band. His performance is absolutely exceptional, from the mannerisms to the cultured but streetwise tone, you could easily imagine that Wilson is in the room with you.
It might not all be true of course, Wilson was notorious for preferring legend over the truth, and it might not add anything we don’t already know. But it is effortlessly entertaining and done in an engaging style that feels more tangible than Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. I’m a fan of the Factory Records scene. It draws me in like a moth to a flame. There is something captivating about the union between the characters, the music and the time, New Dawn Fades delivers on all of these to provide a lively insight into the Manchester of the late 1970’s.
Michael Whittaker (A Lot of It About) is uncannily brilliant as Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Projecting a love/hate affair he both embraces and despises the on-stage microphone. Conveying Curtis’ troubled nature he even indulges in the trademark dancing that Curtis deployed on stage. Yet he is also tender in his scenes with his wife Deborah and able to pull off a live performance of some of the band’s tracks on stage. Looking every inch the part, this may well be a defining role for him.
At times, New Dawn Fades can make for uncomfortable watching – knowing that time is ticking until Curtis’s suicide. Scenes where Curtis’ epilepsy takes hold are especially harrowing. The specter of Annike Honore looms large as Natalie-Marie Perry’s (Blade Runner) Deborah Curtis finally snaps under the strain of managing a fading Curtis and family life and demands a divorce in one of the play’s more intimate and affecting sequences. These all serve as a timely reminder that even though the legend and romance of the Factory world is still palpable today, the reality and pressures were much different. Indeed, the only time we see Wilson under pressure is Curtis’ bungled overdose where he uncharacteristically snaps for Curtis to “get it together”.
Elsewhere, Guy Wills is marvelously moody as bassist Peter Hook. Sean Mason plays a whole cast of characters including producer Martin Hannett and a brilliant cameo of critic Paul Morley. Neil Bell’s direction keeps things moving, fluidly going from serious to full-on party without leaving the audience behind.
New Dawn Fades is an powerful and irresistible glimpse of an exciting time for the development of Manchester, Salford and alternative pop culture. It is a rare chance to see these larger than life characters come to stage that is unsurprisingly sold out for this run. Deserving of life beyond these current dates, you’d be mad to miss another chance to see this defining story should one become avaliable. Exceptionally well crafted and with some very strong performances, New Dawn Fades light won’t be fading away any time yet.
The Fiction Stroker gives New Dawn Fades five strokes out of five:
New Dawn Fades runs at the Lass O’Gowrie, Charles Street, until July 17. Mudkiss fanzine have an excellent interview with writer Brian Gorman here. Photography by Shay Rowan.