DramaReviewSouth West

The Damed United – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: Anders Lustgarten (adapted from David Peace book)

Director: Rod Dixon

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

If you are a certain age and if ‘the beautiful game’ is, as Bill Shankly put it, ‘more important than life or death’ then this is a play for you.

Based on David Peace’s eponymous novel, The Damned United is the story of Brian Clough’s doomed 44 days at Leeds United Football Club in 1974. Love him or hate him, Brian Clough was undoubtedly one of the country’s most successful football managers. In his own words: ‘I wouldn’t say I was the best in the business. But I was in the top one’. This quote alone goes some way to encapsulate the man and this play. What lies behind such hubris? 

Anders Lustgarten’s adaptation from the original book was originally staged for a full-length play, but this short, 60 minute, touring version required a new script to be developed for a cast of just three. Lustgarten and Peace’s foul and antagonistic language between players, managers and directors is superbly delivered by Luke Dickson (Brian Cough), David Chafer (Peter Taylor) and Jamie Smelt performing all other parts. Dickson, in particular, hands on hips and chin pushed forward captures Clough’s brash, but mesmerising, arrogance. A flashback to the tans, browns, kipper ties, slicked back hair, directors in expensive coats with big collars and mirrored glasses are all hugely reminiscent of the times. Staged in the dimmed lighting of the corridors and rooms beneath the stadium seats complete with corrugated iron walls, the set is brilliantly evocative of the era.

As the days at Leeds start to pass, we see flashes back to Clough’s time at Derby County with the assistant manager, Peter Taylor. The accumulating problems at Leeds are seen in stark contrast to the path to glory he enjoyed at Derby with Taylor. The two men’s characters, hugely different, but complementary, produced one of the most successful partnerships in the game’s history. Clough generally acknowledged for inspiring clean playing style had for years criticised Don Revie’s and the Leeds players ‘dirty’ approach. Having antagonised the Leeds players and fans for years, his move to the club was always going to be uphill, but without Taylor, his family still in Derby, and only the company of the whisky bottle, Clough’s descent to breaking point is almost painful to watch.

Sharp direction from Rod Dixon is required to get all this into 60 minutes. It does feel very brisk throughout and the constant switching between Clough’s time at Leeds and Derby can disorientate a little. More specifically, if you are not fully immersed in football history then you are going to have to run very fast to keep up with the references or let them pass completely and just miss out on some of the play. As an example, not everyone will know about the significance of Bremner and Kegan getting sent off in the 1974 Charity Shield. It is a shame that for many, so much of this play will be lost. A longer running time would allow more time to fill out the story and keep those less familiar with the events along. On the other hand, for a certain target audience reliving the days of Clough’s seeming invincibility and a revisiting a controversial period of English football must be a dream.

Reviewed on 9 May 2018 | Image: Contributed

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