Writer: Anders Lustgarten
Director: Rod Dixon
The staging of The Damned United at the Grove Hall, South Kirkby, is significant or not, depending on your viewpoint. This Red Ladder production, cut down from the original version performed at Leeds Playhouse, has been around with the same cast for at least four years and even played the Grove Hall in 2017, so we are treading familiar ground. On the other hand, as theatre comes to life again, it’s of tremendous importance that the grass-roots venues revive. There is something almost inspiring about sitting in a community hall in a former pit village with a sizeable audience (with social distancing only a handful more could have been accommodated) watching quality theatre – particularly at a time when many people are uneasy with travel.
And the important thing is it is quality theatre. It’s pared down, but the use of projections and sound effects (Nina Dunn and Ed Heaton) is imaginative and precise and, in Rod Dixon’s assured and unfussy production, three actors deliver with intelligence and energy a script that consistently entertains (everyone except those uneasy with a barrage of obscene language) and digs unrelentingly into the frailties of the human condition.
The story of The Damned United is pretty familiar now. Those of us of a certain age remember the actual events; otherwise the facts are there in David Peace’s novel, a feature film and Anders Lustgarten’s stage version. In 1974 Brian Clough, to everyone’s surprise, was appointed Manager of Leeds United. In some ways it was a marriage made in Heaven – League champions and former League-winning manager with Derby County – but it was doomed. Clough had some good intentions – to create a more sporting approach and, necessarily, to oversee the changeover from the old guard of Bremner, Giles, Hunter, etc. – but you have bridges to build if you have regularly described your new team as cheats and Clough’s pursuit of revenge on his predecessor, Don Revie, was all too obvious. He lasted 44 days.
The acting area has two tables, one with a whisky bottle, one with a phone (that’s Clough summed up), a few wire lockers and a screen. At the start Clough stands back to the audience watching himself play for Sunderland while his long-time associate, Peter Taylor, intones with graphic understatement the events surrounding the injury that ended his career. So bitterness is there from the start, along with ambition, principle and growing paranoia, as we trace Clough’s career in alternating scenes of his pre-Leeds career and his troubled 44 days.
Luke Dickson makes no attempt to replicate Clough’s appearance, and, though the voice is familiar, it’s not an impersonation. Instead he vividly suggests the energy, the wilful tactlessness and the certainty shading into emotional collapse, of the man – also the sense of triumph that reminds us that Clough’s time at Leeds was a disaster, but his best years were still before him at Nottingham Forest. His double act with David Chafer’s Peter Taylor is perfectly judged: the scene where Taylor assures the Derby players that Clough loves them after the manager has poured out a torrent of filth and insults is a gem. Chafer’s performance subtly plays with the relationship – who is dependent on whom? Jamie Smelt has fun with assorted Chairmen (reference is made to Len Shackleton’s famous chapter, What the Average Director Knows about Football – a blank page!) and registers with a complex portrayal of Syd Owen, Leeds United’s 1st Team Coach.
Touring the North of England