Writer: Anders Lustgarten
Original author: David Peace
Director: Rod Dixon
Set & Projection Designer: Nina Dunn
Reviewer: Rob Atkinson
Coming in from a snowy evening in Barnsley, the audience for this three-handed analysis of departed genius stepped into the white heat of one of football’s most bizarre and enduring controversies: the appointment of Brian Clough, Old Big ‘Ead himself, to the manager’s seat at Leeds United, a club he had publicly despised for years, as a replacement for his arch-nemesis Don Revie. Over the course of a couple of hours, on a starkly minimalist set enhanced by the skilful use of projected images, the complex and paranoid soul of Clough was laid bare by this theatrical treatment of The Damned United in a way that the novel and film of the same name had never quite managed.
Luke Dickson’s almost uncomfortably accurate portrayal of Clough captured the warring emotions within the man; his resentment of authority, his defiant self-belief and exuberant confidence – and his steadfast rejection of what he saw as ultra-professionalism, amounting in his eyes to cynical cheating and outright thuggery. Dickson captured not only Clough’s characteristic nasal Teesside drawl, he ran the gamut of the emotions that ruled a man of conflicting moods. The triumphalism of his success at Hartlepool and then Derby was offset by his grief and angst at the loss of his mother; Dickson’s Clough rode a tempestuous roller-coaster all evening long, the professional football manager confronting amateur football directors one minute, his hit and miss, waxing and waning relationship with soul-mate assistant Peter Taylor the next.
Taylor’s half-resentful, half-overawed eminence grise was brought back to life by David Chafer, who diligently captured the former goalkeeper’s legendary role as the necessary foil to Clough’s maverick virtuosity. The exasperation and love of the mentor-turned-assistant for his one-time protégé shone out from Chafer’s performance, with his part in a classic good cop/bad cop pre-match team talk being an undoubted highlight. Swept along by Brian’s personality and rhetoric, it was Taylor’s support that brought out the best in Clough, just as it was a temporary abandonment by his partner that sowed the seeds of Clough’s failure at Leeds. Chafer gave the audience an insight into the contribution of Taylor to the Clough legend; whether he was feeling the onset of Taylor’s heart problems or railing against the slings and arrows of outrageous football chairmen, this was a performance of truth and integrity. Peter Taylor was a rotund character, something that Clough in the extremes of his vitriol would often throw at his partner. This formed part of the action and, such was the conviction of both men’s performances, that it did not seem incongruous when the burly Dickson called the lean Chafer “fat”.
In a variety of supporting roles, including Derby County and Leeds United chairmen Longson and Cussins, together with United coach Syd Owen among others, Jamie Smelt found the necessary variety of delivery to pull off multiple roles. His arrogant, self-made County supremo Sam Longson contrasted nicely with the worry and turmoil of Manny Cussins at Leeds, the man who thought he’d hired the best and had to watch his appointment turn to disaster amid a welter of player power and Clough’s hopeless need for his mate Taylor. Smelt succeeded in that there was no uncomfortable feeling of the same actor in different hats; each character convinced, and the two main protagonists benefited accordingly.
This theatrical piece succeeded because it had pace, impact and honesty; no punches were pulled by director Rod Dixon, and fewer liberties were taken with history as compared with the movie treatment. The play was raw where it needed to be, but there were moments of comic relief and, although the main character Clough had to be given the warts-and-all portrayal he received here, Luke Dickson also elicited sympathy and compassion with occasional glimpses of the vulnerability and sheer complexity of this undoubted football legend.
Reviewed on 30th November | Image: Contributed