Writer: Anders Lustgarten
Adapted from the novel by: David Peace
Director: Rod Dixon
Set and Projections: Nina Dunn
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Damned United has practically gained the status of folklore, especially in West Yorkshire. Initially, David Peace’s book made an impact as a powerful, imaginative, occasionally poetic insight into what made Brian Clough the flawed genius he was and why his spell as Leeds United manager was doomed from the start. A well-received feature film was followed by a joint West Yorkshire Playhouse/Red Ladder production of Anders Lustgarten’s adaptation last year. Now, again directed by Rod Dixon for Red Ladder, a stripped down, slightly shortened, reduced cast version is taking The Damned United to smaller venues, including a month on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
In 1974, when Brian Clough took over as manager of Leeds United, in some ways it seemed a recipe for success. Leeds were the First Division champions (no Premier League in those days), Clough had taken unheralded Derby County to the title two years previously. However, the potential for disaster was even greater: Clough’s volatility of character had led to an unseemly parting from Derby and an unsuccessful spell at lower league Brighton; the Leeds squad was aging and many were out of contract; Clough’s comments on the Leeds team under Don Revie had been nothing if not provocative. The experiment lasted 44 days.
Since Clough had openly called the players cheats and two of the senior team members had fancied Revie’s job for themselves, a month and a half in the job might seem par for the course, and Peace’s dissection left nobody smelling of roses. Clough’s arrogance was balanced with his neurotic tendencies; players and coaches schemed against him; board members proved weak, devious or bombastic. But, at the centre of it all, dreadful as he was in many ways, Clough dominated with his charisma and a certain surreal poetry.
Lustgarten’s adaptation is obviously less detailed than the book and also more straightforwardly narrative. However, like the book, it proceeds in a series of short snapshots of scenes, with Clough’s 44 days at Leeds intercut with the story of his previous rise and fall which brings out his messianic fervour and his self-destructive ego, plus his pathological hatred of Revie’s Leeds.
Rod Dixon’s production is brisk and direct, with no set as such, but ingenious use of projections to boost the back story (starting with Clough playing for Sunderland) or suggest the presence of members of the Leeds team. Unlike last year’s Playhouse production, the cast of this light-on-its-feet touring show is only three.
Luke Dickson and David Chafer wisely make no attempt at a direct impersonation of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, but Dickson conveys the self-obsession of Old Big ‘Ead convincingly and occasionally amusingly and Chafer effectively shuffles the pack of his long-suffering assistant’s multiple roles. Jamie Smelt distinguishes neatly between a trio of directors and makes a real impact as Syd Owen, the assistant manager whose loyalty is to Leeds United, not Brian Clough.
Above all, it is great news for this ex-pit village that its comfortable council-owned hall is now establishing itself as an occasional venue for high-quality small-scale theatre.
Touring nationwide | Image: malcijphotography