New Dawn Fades tells the story of Joy Division’s short and tragic career but will long time fan Paul Clarke be impressed by what he sees at Leeds City Varieties?
It is a typical of a city that prides itself on being so contrary that Joy Division who came to define Manchester’s sound featured no members who actually came from there. Ian Curtis being born in Old Trafford – but raised in Macclesfield – doesn’t count no matter how hard New Dawn Fades tries as it comes back for a second tour.
Perhaps inadvertently this entraining sprint through the band’s short, tragic career makes the point that Manchester has always been a melting pot, and Joy Division were just another bunch of musical incomers who used the city to make their name.
So it is slightly cheeky that our host for the evening – the late, great Salford lad Anthony H Wilson/Tony Wilson – takes us on a potted history Manchester including an utterly bizarre and wooden appearance by a Roman General. It was rubbish last time out, and just as bad this time, which does beg the question why on earth this pointless interlude was left in.
Luckily Lee Joseph is great fun as Wilson playfully capturing the flamboyance of the intellectual local TV presenter turned record company boss. For those of us who worked with Wilson he also shows the kind heart that lurked behind the sardonic persona.
Yes, he lucked out finding the greatest band to come out of Manchester, and its environs, but as he points out ‘I was once again in the right place at the right time’. He also got lucky that Joy Division had a driven manager like Rob Gretton – played by Giles Bastow with wry belligerence.
Given we are taking a three year journey that includes not only the band, but also Engels, John Dee, Pete Shelly, Mick Middles, Paul Morley, Martin Hannett and Deborah Curtis, the show is a bit episodic and Joseph does a decent job keeping it moving. Brian Gorman’s writing offers plenty of laughs amongst the misery, but is a more than a touch obvious at times – especially as everyone in this mature audience probably knows this story backwards.
The show’s success rests on the actor who plays the tortured, doomed singer who takes centre stage and it’s good to see Michael Whittaker back. Whittaker has Curtis’ voice down when the cast play Joy Division classics (semi) live, and really nails his unique dancing style that got more extreme as his epilepsy took hold.
The other three band members lack a similar psychological depth as Barney becomes the stereotypical sensitive working class artist, Stephen Morris is just the gormless drummer and Hooky is an inarticulate ball of rage. If you want a more rounded version of these smart working class lads – who were far more than just Curtis’ sidekicks – then buy Barney and Hooky’s must read memoirs.
Gorman for better or worse seems most concerned with Curtis and his disintegrating relationship with childhood sweetheart Deborah as he desperately tries to manage his illness, fatherhood and the rock and roll lifestyle he has always craved.
Unlike most plays we know how this story ends, and the final tragedy is handled with appropriate sensitivity and respect by both cast and writer, but the awful denouement still turns your stomach especially as you can’t help thinking what might have been.
If you want comedy Wilson then 24 Hour Party People is still the best bet, and Control offers a ride on the band’s emotional roller-coaster, but if want a dollop of both then New Dawn Fades successfully combines them for Joy Divisions devotees who fancy a bit of theatre.
New Dawn Fades is at Sheffield Leadmill on Friday 22 and Saturday 23 April. To book go to www.leadmill.co.uk or 0114 2727040.
All words by Paul Clarke. You can find more of Paul’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive. Photo by Shay Revan.