BRISTOL & TOURING
TOBACCO FACTORY THEATRES – TILL 6 JUNE
THE DAMNED UNITED by Anders Lustgarten, adapted from the novel by David Peace
RUNNING TIME 65 MINUTES – NO INTERVAL
Tobacco Factory Theatres Box Office – 0117 9020344
REVIEW: CORMAC RICHARDS – 5 JUNE 2018
It’s a funny old game
‘The Best Manager England Never Had’ or so runs the opinion of many football followers. Brian Clough was always a figure of debate and, to some, of fun.
David Peace’s novel The Damned United, telling the story of Clough’s disastrous reign as manager of Leeds United for just 44 days, was memorably made into a film starring Michael Sheen and is here distilled into 65 minutes of theatre.
Set against a corrugated screen showing clever projections – though these cannot have been visible to some in the audience – the company of three actors tell the story by means of a script combining narrative and dialogue. The use of sound effects – cheering crowds, football chanting etc – and archive film gives the impression of a canvas the size of a football pitch even in an intimate auditorium.
We were taken back and forth in time between Clough’s successful stint at Derby County to the desperate times at Leeds along with his partner in crime Peter Taylor – the Good Cop/Bad Cop of soccer management. Though football is undeniably a central theme to the play, the more interesting one is the relationship between Clough and Taylor. The once, chummy, unbreakable friendship, eventually broken down by Clough’s ambition, arrogance and unwillingness to conform; the very reasons he messed up at Leeds. This provides a strong thread throughout the play and it is well executed by the actors.
As Clough, Luke Dickson, doesn’t try and give a full-blown impersonation, but presents more of an impression, with a nod to the peculiar accent and mannerisms of the man. The performance is strong, energetic and far from one-dimensional as witnessed by the breakdown over his Mother’s death. He is well matched by David Chafer as the down-trodden Taylor – always the subservient one until he finally breaks free. Jamie Smelt is very effective as club chairmen and other characters in the tale.
The script is snappy and pitted with great one-liners from Clough who was famed for his ability to be succinct and pithy in just a few words. At times the play seems to enter into poetry mode as the actors declaim and eulogise. It is a funny script – possibly less so if you are not into your football – but it does demonstrate the fickle nature of sports management – or indeed any management – where you can go from hero to zero in quick time!
Clough’s dislike of his predecessor at Leeds, Don Revie, is never far from the surface and the very clever footage of the famous TV interview with the two managers is here re-created with video clips of Revie and the onstage actor. It’s incredibly ingenious and effective and a real credit to the technical skills of the set and projection designs of Nina Dunn.
The Damned United is a production by the Red Ladder Theatre Company which has been in existence for 50 years and their Artistic Director, Rod Dixon, has directed this play with a keen eye on short, sharp entertainment. It’s a perfectly rounded piece of theatre and, even at only just over an hour, very satisfying.
With the World Cup just around the corner, we will never know if Clough would have made a success as England Manager, his unique style and personality never found favour with the powers that be, but as witnessed in this play, it could have been fun seeing him get the chance. He couldn’t have done much worse than every manager since 1966!
DIRECTED BY ROD DIXON
SET & PROJECTION DESIGNS BY NINA DUNN
LIGHTING DESIGN BY TIM SKELLY
SOUND DESIGN BY ED HEATON
PHOTOGRAPH: MALCOLM JOHNSON