The story of influential Manchester band Joy Division has been told to the point of exhaustion, right? So many books, including Hooky’s, two films in the shape of the excellent Control and Steve Coogan’s 24 Hour Party People, not to mention the myriad press coverage.
But a play?
Well, yes. Why not? The big question is, what could it bring that was new to the story? Quite a bit, it seems.
Last night found me sitting in a tiny, sweaty upstairs room, clutching a rapidly overheating pint of beer and squeezed into a corner, at the Lass O’Gowrie in Manchester watching New Dawn Fades, the play in question. As theatres go, at around 30 seats it was indeed cramped and the “stage” space was even smaller – no wings, no curtains, the actors entering and exiting through the sole door: the same one the audience came in through.
But no mind. Packed into 90 minutes was an imaginative retelling of the well-known tale but with some splendid Mancunian twists chucked in. This was not just about the band, but the band as a product of Manchester and therefore it seemed entirely logical to explore some of the city’s history in the script too.
The narrator of New Dawn Fades was Tony Wilson, the journalist who founded Factory, and many scenes played out as if Wilson was on the job at Granada Reports. So we saw him interviewing Agricola, who founded the original Roman settlement of Mamucium that eventually grew into the industrial metropolis it is today, Dr John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I and warden of Manchester’s Christ’s College, and Friedrich Engels, who studied the Victorian industrial slums of the city and wrote about it in The Condition of the Working Class in England.
New Dawn Fades’ playwright Brian Gorman originally conceived the idea as a graphic novel. Several years down the line, it is still not published and Gorman decided to rework it in the interim.
This is where I depart from a traditional review for I must disclose my connections to the show. I’ve known Brian Gorman – actor, writer, artist, director – for close to 10 years, meeting him soon after I moved back to the UK after years abroad. Some four years ago, I had a book of my own published – Epilepsy the Essential Guide – and Brian, once he was deep into drawing the graphic novel, asked if he could borrow some of it. That was fine by me. Then Brian asked me for a photo of me so he could actually put me in the book.
I said yes to that too. He used a very old photo of me and I’m seen here with some ancient philosopher in the throes of a seizure (or possibly St Paul on the road to Damascus – I never asked which), for back in the day people thought that someone who hallucinated during a temporal lobe fit was having visions from god.
And then came New Dawn Fades. Brian asked again for clearance to use my text. And then I sat in on one of the auditions, which was exciting enough in itself, but the epilepsy scene was included during the castings so I got to advise a little on the script.
Later, Michael Whittaker, who played Ian Curtis in New Dawn Fades (rather brilliantly, as it happens and he did a very convincing epileptic seizure on stage), came to me for info on epilepsy, throwing some rather tough questions at me such as what did it feel like coming round from a seizure? That was pretty hard to describe.
I’d also planned to drop in on one of the final rehearsals to see how Michael was acting a seizure but in the end, irony of ironies, I had a whopping great fit that morning and wasn’t going anywhere.
Hearing my words spoken on stage by “Tony Wilson” and “Debbie Curtis” was pretty weird. I had goosebumps. One of the reasons I wrote my book in the first place was to help others with easy to digest information as I was given no advice when diagnosed with epilepsy and learned a lot of stuff the hard way. I hope that short scene gave at least a nugget of understanding to the audience.
There have been only six, completely sold out performances of New Dawn Fades and there are already some good reviews up on the internet at Louder than War and Northern Soul. At the moment there are no plans to stage it again but if it does be sure to catch it – you will not be disappointed. The cast were all excellent, the direction was skilful, imaginative and laced with humour, and Brian’s inclusion in the script of some of Manchester’s history gives some great context.