DramaReviewSouth West

The Damned United – Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

Writer: Anders Lustgarten

Director: Rod Dixon

Set & projection design: Tim Skelly

Reviewer: Julia Beasley

In 1974, Don Revie replaced Alf Ramsey as manager of the England football team.  The job that Revie vacated – manager of Leeds United – was then filled by Brian Clough from Derby County. Clough was talented, charismatic and outspoken.  But his appointment at Leeds was surprising at the time since he had been highly critical of the team under Revie.

Sure enough, the appointment turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. He was sacked after just 44 tumultuous days in the dream job that turned into his own private version of hell. 

Clough played by Luke Dickson wades into the job cocksure to the point of arrogant. In combative style, he berates the players as ‘cheats, cowards and c***s’ and tells them they are ‘despised’ – ‘I can make you loved’. He is against the bribery favoured by his predecessor.  He wants to make United ‘honest and sincere’ – by buying inexpensive new hires. Describing himself as ‘the new Cromwell’, he manages to make himself unpopular with the club’s chairman, directors, team and fans alike.

The biographical sports drama based on a bestselling novel by David Pearce was a film in 2009 and then a theatrical sell-out in 2016 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This version from Red Ladder Therefore Company in Association with Unity Theatre Liverpool emphasises the close relationship between ‘Cloughie’ and his sidekick Peter Taylor, played by David Chafer, as well as his rivalry with fellow Middlesbrough tough man Revie.

There’s no escaping that it’s all about football. This probably explains the predominantly male audience (honestly, when did you ever attend a play where more than half the attendees are men in checked shirts?). You don’t have to be a football aficionado to appreciate The Damned United, but it certainly helps to explain the context of all the tantrums and testosterone on stage.

Unfortunately, the set design fits badly into the immersive space of the Tobacco Factory. The corrugated projection screen is unviewable from some parts of the auditorium, where floodlights shining hotly and directly into the crowd.  Quite literally, the audience experiences the sweaty discomfort portrayed by the 1970s sporting celebrities on stage.

It’s no spoiler that Cloughie went onto manage Nottingham Forest to great success. He was also known as ‘the greatest manager England never had’.  But his brief days at Leeds United were ill-fated in the extreme.

Reviewed on 5 June 2018 | Image: Contributed

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