New Dawn Fades – the play exploring the history of Joy Division, Manchester and so much more celebrates 10 years with an action-packed Northern Tour
The Story of Joy Division and Manchester is a story with implications far beyond the band and city, reaching right into resonant emotional depths it is all-the-more important to explore – according to Giles Bastow. He is one of the tight-knit Northern team behind New Dawn Fades – a play (written by Brian Gorman, which first came to stage in 2013) about the band, the city that kickstarted their careers and the coils of history at its heart.
It is testament to the play’s enduring appeal, ongoing evolution and – crucially – sheer grit, that it is still going after ten tremendous, and at times turbulent, years. I meet the cast inside The Refuge, the iconic bar inside Manchester’s Former Refuge Assurance Company Offices, now the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. The building sits at the corner of Whitworth and Oxford Streets, its dramatic red-brick façade built in 1891 by Alfred Waterhouse. It certainly is an apt location for the interview at hand – a discussion delving into history, cultural heritage and resilience.
“When it comes to the play, there’s a pulse there we can all tap into,” reflects Sean Mason – who stars in the show, as well as Co-Directing and Producing with Bastow (they take on the characters of the eccentric sound-producer Martin Hannett and potty-mouthed manager Rob Gretton respectively, as well as making some intriguing additional appearances…) “For some people it is a case of exploring their local history, for others it is about confronting emotion… and ultimately, whatever you’re a fan of, it is a way to get together again.”
The show, executively produced by Nina Whiteman (for All Roads Meet), provides a rollicking (rock ‘n’) roll through two millennia of Manchester (and beyond!) history, whilst also focusing on the post-punk band many know and still love today. From being inspired by the infamous 1976 Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall to Ian Curtis’ awe-striking songwriting, signing with Factory Records and the interest of Tony Wilson, the play serves up a stunning array of memorable moments… and through a range of media!
Featuring live music, improvisation, graphic projections (“We are hoping to use more of Brian Gorman’s graphic novel, the book which originally inspired the play,” adds Giles) New Dawn Fades is set to be whirlwind of cultural content, in the best possible way. All-the-more exciting, this year sees the play coming to new venues, starting out at Sheffield Leadmill on Thursday 1 September and taking on a range of locations (in Huddersfield, Liverpool, Chorley and Bury) before finally arriving in its home city at The Royal Northern College of Music Theatre, Manchester (on Thursday 29 and Friday 30 September). It seems apt after all that a play that so profoundly explores the power of location and place, is embarking on a notably Northern tour.
Places after all are palimpsests of culture and feeling – something the Covid-19 Pandemic has perhaps highlighted even more. When faced with lockdowns and limited travel opportunities, many more people have been considering the histories (and mysteries) that shape our lives closer to home.
The Story of Joy Division and Manchester is an example of such a history. On one level, it is a stage show swirling through the highs and lows of the iconic 1970s/80s band and their place in time. On another level, it is a raw tour-de-force telling of four friends, the dynamics of self and struggle, and a striving determination to create something.
“A community has formed around the play – people see the show again and again, and we love that – but we want to continue building, to continue creating, too,” reflects Bastow.
Having taken shape via the graphic novel by local author and actor Brian Gorman, the play encapsulates an array of narratives – highlighting how our cultural histories are another layer of creativity that shapes us. Audiences come face to face with characters not only from Manchester’s music scene, but from centuries past: including Gnaeus Julius Agricola, John Dee and Fredrich Engels, to name just a few! Of course, there are the music icons too: Ian Curtis (Joe Walsh), Tony Wilson (Al Donohoe), with the band consisting of Peter Hook (Bill Bradshaw), Bernard Sumner (Harry McLafferty), and Stephen Morris (Matthew Melbourne). Leah Grey-Scaife poignantly and convincingly plays the part of Curtis’ wife Debbie.
It takes a particular skill – some would even call it a daring – to take on so many potentially tricky characters (and their turbulent stories), many of whom we may have our own ‘version’ of. But shaking up things matters. the plucky approach of New Dawn Fades is a refreshing two fingers in the face of close-minded, singular tellings of history and a turbulent ride through music, mavericky and most crucially – Northern life.
“I like that this is a Northern tour, and a 10th anniversary tour where we’re going to places that we’ve never been before. You can tell a working-class story without it being worthy, it’s getting out of that whole ‘I’ve got a kestrel and we’re going down the mines’ tired narrative of ‘Northerness’ and just being authentically itself. The range of voices, the energy and a down-to-earth approach is very important I think.” Says Mason.
Al Donohoe plays the flamboyant ‘Mr Manchester’ Tony Wilson himself, having taken on the role for the first time in 2019.
“It’s a play that’s a slice of life, actually relatable, and I love that,” he comments.
And after a nearly three-year-long hiatus since the last tour in 2019 (the year marking the 40th anniversary of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album, the LP containing the track from which the play takes its name) which involved a range of new cast members (Donohoe being one) there is all-the-more energy to reach out and explore that unknown. This is a play which is constantly evolving.
“I’m looking forward to coming at things from different angles this time, and perhaps expanding on the improvisational element more,” Donohoe adds.
Like Donohoe, Joe Walsh was also new to the cast in 2019 – playing Ian Curtis. Considering that this is a play spanning Curtis’ formative years as a creative, as well as the highs and lows of his marriage, health scares (Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy during his time with the band) and tragic suicide at the age of 23 – this is a role with significant emotional intensity to consider. But also, an intimacy we can all relate to.
“Ultimately I would say this is a play about a group of mates – they could be my mates, your mates – the thing is, I think it emphasises the importance of looking out for our mates; and that’s something that matters more than ever,” reflects Walsh.
After all, these comments come following the turbulence and changes posed by the Covid-19 Pandemic, with the series of lockdowns posing particular challenges… and issues that are still being encountered.
“Of course, the circumstances brought about by the Pandemic were tough for a number of reasons,” says Donohoe. “It was a challenge to physical health, but also to mental health, with people feeling and becoming isolated. It brought an end to lot of creative practice as we know it too – including in-person acting and rehearsals. Of course, we couldn’t run and tour New Dawn Fades as we had originally anticipated.”
Prior to lockdown, a 2020/21 tour of New Dawn Fades had been envisaged – potentially even on a European level. Ideas continued to swirl, but it wasn’t until 2022 that cast meetings and momentum could really build. And this is still a process with its own precariousness.
“These days, if you are a massive show, your rehearsal space and period is built in – and money,” comments Donohoe.
“As we’re mid-level, many spaces can’t accommodate us anymore to rehearse: the usual bars and venues we may have once taken for granted. Now it is really thanks to places like The Peer Hat, places and people out there who have been generous with their space and time, knowing how hard it is… that we are still going. I think that needs to be emphasised. Although it is great that cultural content is coming back, there are still challenges too.”
That New Dawn Fades has managed to sustain itself is testament to the creative energy itself that the play celebrates. Fittingly so, new formats and formulations of character are to come, as well as staging. There is a dedicated and vibrant crew helping to transform the production further, including Kaeren Dooley overseeing Wardrobe/Costume, Tim Forshaw on Lighting, Stage Management from Phillipa Smith-Aitchison and Jason Hall on Sound. It truly is a team effort.
“You may well think you know ‘The Joy Division’ story,” says Al. “But you don’t know our take on it.” With Sean adding that “two years ‘off’, in effect, has meant that the cast are getting back to the characters with fresh eyes.”
“It would be easy to just do it again. But we want to go into the nuances of characters more,” adds Giles. “Plus, we want to feature more of Brian’s graphic novel… it’s always been a baring on it. I’ve always seen it as a visual play after all– playing into that Factory Records aesthetic. Now we’re ready to truly create a spectacular – something people can see themselves part of, are part of.”
New Dawn Fades: A Play About Joy Division & Manchester 10th Anniversary Tour 2022 will open on Thursday 1 September at Sheffield Leadmill and then go on to further venues including The Met, Bury, Liverpool Epstein Theatre and RNCM Theatre, Manchester. You can buy tickets by following the link here.
Take a listen to New Dawn Fades below. A true classic.