Writer: Anders Lustgarten
Director: Rod Dixon
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.
Just one of many quotes from the bullish, brash and brazen football manager Brian Clough. The Damned United charts the turbulent 44 days he found himself in charge of high flying Leeds United in the summer of 1974, a club he had previously decried.
This co-production between The West Yorkshire Playhouse and Leeds-based Red Ladder Theatre Company, has been resurrected a couple of years after it was first produced and with a slighter cast of three. Very much rooted in the city of Leeds it attracts fervent United football fans as well as those with a keen interest in football from a bygone era. Writer Anders Lustgarten has a tough job to adapt David Peace’s 2006 novel after it was made into a film starring Michael Sheen in 2009 and adapted by Peter Morgan, noted for his biographical dramas, most notably The Crown.
Lustgarten drops us straight into the story on day one of Clough’s tenure with no preamble. The adaptation and Rod Dixon’s direction is as purposefully bullish as Clough himself. The character walks in straight, perpendicular lines onstage and even wields an axe (literally as well as metaphorically) in one of the opening scenes. The sacrifice for this unabashed delivery is unavoidable clunky exposition. For anyone unfamiliar with the workings and characters of football management in the mid-1970s we are quickly acquainted with our two main characters, Brian Clough (Luke Dickson) and his right-hand man Peter Taylor (David Chafer) as well as other offstage personas from that period.
Nina Dunn’s simple set consists of a corrugated iron backdrop which is used for much projection. It helps bring many of the faces to life and even has a cheeky nod to the modern game when, at one appropriate moment, a fleeting image of Jose Mourinho appears behind Clough. Perhaps despite the forty years gap and an influx billions of pounds into the game nothing really changes in football management at the top? It is used again later in the play with interesting effect as live and recorded mix recreating a television spat between Clough and the ex-Leeds United manager Don Revie.
As Clough himself, Luke Dickson has a giant task. Onstage for the entire running time of seventy minutes he portrays a character that is not particularly likeable. Intelligently, Dickson does not try to mimic Clough (similar to Michael Sheen’s performance in the film version) rather bring certain traits and characteristics to his performance. The result means that the actor is allowed to embody the character rather than imitate. As Peter Taylor, David Chafer relishes in the power struggle between the duo that had so much previous success before their appointment in Leeds. And as ‘good cop/bad cop’ during half-time team talks their act is a well-polished affair. Jamie Smelt obviously has fun sending up the chairman of Derby and Leeds with cartoonish- style performance,s but it is the portrayal of the United kit-man that lends some gravitas to the circus surrounding game and the appointment of Clough. All three actors work extremely hard through an expletive-strewn script that holds nothing back in the boardroom or the dressing room.
The Damned United is a fascinating piece for anyone who remembers the game in the 1970s and for a local audience interested in the history of their club. However, the adaptation lacks resonance in terms of exploring universal themes. It is touched upon slightly when Taylor pleads with Clough that perhaps the fight to the top is actually worth more than sitting at the top, but otherwise, as a neutral, it is difficult to connect to characters empathetically or for them to uncover gems of universal wisdom.
Reviewed on 28 March 2018 | Image: Contributed