Friday, 13 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: New Dawn Fades - The Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester

The story of four ordinary lads from a combination of Manchester, Salford and Macclesfield is one that has been told in quite a few different formats – plays, film, books, television documentaries – so my immediate question was how “New Dawn Fades” might be different. This is the story of a band called Joy Division and the unassuming four lads who went on to become just about the most influential punk band after the Sex Pistols – not least because the lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide just as the band were about to break into the US market.

“New Dawn Fades” had a very simple set in place, some crates on the right hand side of the stage and a few chairs strewn around in what appeared to be no particular order. The most striking thing about the set was a drum kit, a bass guitar, a lead guitar which were all in place looking as though this might be a music gig. A large screen at the back of the stage spelt out the name of the play as we arrived but this was subsequently used for many different backdrops and features throughout.

The play introduced us to the main characters very early on, including lead singer Ian Curtis (Joseph Walsh), lead guitarist Bernard Sumner (Harry McLafferty), bass guitarist Peter Hook (Bill Bradshaw) and drummer Stephen Morris (Matthew Melbourne). Curtis, Sumner and Hook had met during a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester a few months earlier and with Sumner and Hook putting a band together they were only missing a singer – they advertised at the local Virgin record store and got a phone call from keen poet and wordsmith Curtis who wanted to be their singer. They immediately accepted Curtis into their group, seemingly based on the fact that he was someone they could get on easily with and not based on his talent. However, they got lucky as Curtis had bundles of talent and a huge stage presence which went a long way to getting their immediate success.

Narrator for this production is the very well know Manchester personality Tony Wilson, who was portrayed by Alan Donohoe and deserves a special mention. The temptation when playing Tony Wilson is to create an exaggerated version of him, a caricature almost, which simply isn’t required. Donohoe caught the balance perfectly – the smugness, the confidence, the arrogance but with all of the passion he had for the North West music scene. He is an icon of Manchester but promoted many Liverpool bands in the same era and continued this until he sadly passed away in 2007 aged just 57. Donohoe was without doubt the star of this play.

The first half of this production was brought to an end by a live performance of “Shadowplay” with the cast re-enacting the band’s first television appearance on Tony Wilson’s Granada TV show. The live performance was very well choreographed with a mixture of live performance from some of the band with a backing track booming out of the speakers. The audience of mostly 50-somethings lapped this up and headed into the interval on a high.

The second half of the production was very much the story of Curtis and his battle with epilepsy – he suffered from very regular seizures and despite taking prescription medication to control these, this never really worked and he suffered several on-stage seizures during the band’s performances. Walsh’s performance as Curtis is very real – the mannerisms that Curtis displayed on stage were very close to reality and his mood off stage was captured equally well.

“New Dawn Fades” is an extremely accurate and very well written version of a band who truly changed the culture of the Manchester music scene and were the door to future decades of bands being taken seriously. Brian Gorman’s writing is truly inspirational and he clearly has a huge passion for the city and the culture – it was very nice to be able to meet the man himself after the event.

The only thing I can truly criticise this production for is the lack of presence of Annik Honore – who Curtis had a long running affair with, despite the guilt he felt for his wife Debbie (Leah Gray). Honore was such an influence (both positive and negative) on Curtis and the changes in his personality. Although she is mentioned several times, she is not actually seen. However, this doesn’t change my opinion that “New Dawn Fades” is without doubt the best portrayal I have seen of this story and a truly moving play that gives you all the right balance of emotions throughout.

Reviewer - John Fish
on - 12/9/19

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