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Brian Gorman’s intriguing new stage play is built around the story of the band Joy Division. (Mel's interview with Brian). This is the glue holding the piece together but interestingly,  it’s an ethereal kind of glue leaving crevices and cracks wide open for a procession of peripheral figures to enter the space, some hoveringly, some more startling and incongruous – like the Roman general, Agricola  – though quite honestly, even he, rubbed shoulders quite seamlessly with the characters occupying the centre space. But of course, not even those central characters are operating in present time. This play dances skilfully with the notion of time, it’s passing, it’s pausing, it’s swirling and repeating, but it’s as much about time as place.  We’re showered with a litany of dates and place names, historical, current, disappeared and returning.

So, fittingly the premiere happened on Ian Curtis (lead singer of Joy Divisions birthday) in a location directly opposite the site of the old Factory records offices (now Peter Hook’s factory club). Entering this red-brick, quintessentially Mancunian setting felt just right. As Mel and myself waited for the later performance we saw the audience file downstairs from the earlier showing. Some were in tears, some who had known Joy Division and associated characters in real life. It can’t have been easy to sit through a performance as intimate as this having connections with the real people involved, but perhaps one of the things this play also demonstrates is that we are all connected, through time and space and place. The past is but a breath away, the future can be glimpsed poking around corners if we adjust our vision, the present is strangely nebulous and on that sultry July evening it truly did feel that time zones and spirits were intersecting on multi- levels in the tiny upstairs theatre at the Lass O' Gowrie.

Some may say, a stage-play about Joy Division is superfluous. After all, we've had a stream of films and documentary about the band in recent years. In a sense these are ready-made, recognizable characters to anyone with an average general knowledge of Manchester’s musical history. We've got a colourful entourage and a moving, gripping story that should translate to the stage without too great a difficulty I assumed.  Though somehow, I knew in advance this was a production worth creating and was intrigued to discover what Gorman and director Neil Bell were up to. I wasn't disappointed. From the minute we took our cramped seats in the theatre and stared at the bleakly set stage, there was an immediate sense of both claustrophobia, nostalgia and an endearing kind of awkwardness and confusion. This is the spirit of the band and the times they lived in. I don't know how different the experience would have been in a larger venue but that feeling of being hemmed in and held back, so inherent in the sound of Joy Division was palpable. The characters played out their scenes with such urgency and passion it felt like the walls might burst open at times and dispel some of this pent up frustration.

So, the characters in a sense arrived ready- made as I said, but that's no recipe for success if they aren't fully inhabited and brought to life. The whole cast, each and every one of them stepped into the shoes of each soul with an uncanny fluidity and conviction. I'd rather not single out names because all were authentic and impressive but I have to say that I was continually both amused and captivated by the revolving door set of cameos performed by Sean Mason. From Martin Hannett to Dr Dee (Elizabeth the first’s advisor) and Paul Morley he joined the dots between much of the action. Andrew Michael Grogan who played Stephen Morris did this too, hopping effortlessly out of Stephen and into such figures as Pete Shelley whose encounter with Ian was nothing short of hilarious. The lynchpin was, of course, Tony Wilson, played by Lee Joseph. Who else could be more suited as narrator than a Granada news reporter?  But he was more than that. The Wilson character also took on the quality of some sort of time traveller or seer, a camp historian weaving tales and building bridges and stepping in and out of the action without missing a beat.

Barney and Hooky (Sean Croke and Guy Wills) were loveable and completely believable. Ian Curtis is an enigma, a legend, an icon to many and to climb into his skin is no easy ride. Due to his tragically short life we don't have as much information about Ian as the rest of the band or characters but even watching a short piece of footage of Curtis gives a lasting impression. Michael Whittaker turned Ian into a flesh and blood being again for this night and gave it everything. His singing (and dancing) eerily became more and more attuned to the real singer's voice and movement and I was glad to see he played Ian with a mix of playfulness, charm and passion as well as the inevitable angst. Natalie Perry contributes a strong and spirited performance playing a  vulnerable and confused Deborah Curtis, trying to make sense of the disintegrating landscape around her,  finding little support from the all-male crew on the seemingly  sinking ship. The music business can be a cruel world and the insanity of that life is captured up close and personally in the production tonight. Oh and Rob Gretton (Giles Bastow) WAS Rob was all alarmingly real.

I'd rather not divulge too much more of the detail of the play as my hope is it will move on to a longer residency at perhaps a slightly bigger venue when this sold out run of three nights concludes. Let's just say, this is an experience you won't easily forget. In one scene when Ian was scribbling in a note book I became aware of the sound of a train (a real, not phantom one) trundling along the tracks from Piccadilly to Oxford Road behind the Lass O' Gowrie, a reminder of just where you are., right in the heart of the city of Manchester. After watching this play, you will quite likely find yourself examining the earth under your feet, seeing if you might be standing on the remains of some defunct historical landmark. Watch also which ghosts may be propping up the bar when you come downstairs....


Review by Mary O’Meara
Photos by Melanie

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