Theatre review: New Dawn Fades @ The Dancehouse, Manchester

Watching New Dawn Fades is the closest Joy Division fans of a certain generation will ever get to seeing Ian Curtis in action.

Growing up in Manchester, it is a regular scene to witness older people suspicious of younger Joy Division fans, a phenomen catalysed by the popularity of a certain t-shirt. 

But Brian Gorman’s production at The Dancehouse cut through the generational differences, and portrayed the story of Curtis and Joy Division in a vivid, humorous and ultimately heart-rending fashion.

It is very much a play of two halves. It’s first half is carried by Lee Joseph’s charismatically hyperbolic portrayal of Tony Wilson, who narrates the story, Bill Bradshaw’s pugnacious Peter Hook, and the occasional, unusual interferences from ghosts of Manchester past.

Gorman educates his audience of Manchester’s history at the same time as the Joy Division members his actor’s depict, which also serves to tap into the fiercely patriotic Mancunianism which is always sure to accompany the bands we see as our crowning glory.

As it approaches it’s denouement it understandably becomes more sombre, and as epilepsy, adultery and suicide become the themes which dominate the play, it is Michael Whittaker and Natalie Perry’s performances as Ian and Debbie Curtis which come to the fore. 

Whittaker is brilliantly brooding and tragic, torn between his duty to those around him and his romantic ideals of heroic suicide, whilst Perry’s despair is tangible as the man she loves slips away from her.

Just how enjoyable this play would be to one unfamiliar with the tale of one of Manchester’s finest musical talents is almost irrelevant – if any present at The Dancehall were anything less than Joy Division enthusiasts, then they had stumbled into the wrong theatre. 

This was a well written and passionately performed tribute to Ian Curtis, Joy Division and Manchester, epitomised by its closing line: ‘This is Manchester and we will sing forever’.

But even that ‘Freedom!’-style plea of patriotism couldn’t steal the show.

On numerous occasions during the play, the actors portrayed a Joy Division live performance. What was notable was Michael Whittaker’s dedication to imitating Ian Curtis’ idiosyncratic dance moves.

On numerous occasions during the play, the actors portrayed a Joy Division live performance. That it was Whittaker performing songs such as ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘Transmission’ was scarcely believable.

His mastery of Ian Curtis’ dancing was masterful, his baritone singing was almost eerily identical to the great man’s own voice, and the whole performance just felt amazingly authentic. 

It was enough to raise the hairs on the arms of one journalist who was not fortunate enough to have been alive during Joy Division’s brief reign at the top of the British music scene.

All props are due to Gorman and his excellent cast for a captivating performance.

But, somewhat fittingly, the star of the show was, and always will be, Ian Curtis.

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