This stage adaptation of the novel The Damned United is so tight and lean it even skips entire days in the 44-day reign of Brian Clough’s time as manager of Leeds United Football Club. That this is an adaptation of a novel is significant – this is, in effect, a fictionalisation of a fictionalisation, which allows for some creative and dramatic licence. Not that I know enough about what went on at Elland Road between 30th July and 12th September 1974 to make an effective comparison, or that the larger than life character of Brian Clough (Luke Dickson) needed fictionalising very much in any case.
Rather than focus on differing versions of events, which might, admittedly, have provided for a more nuanced production, the narrative is, as one of the many characters voiced and portrayed by Jamie Smelt put it, crystal clear. The doom and gloom of Clough’s tenure at Leeds is juxtaposed with an altogether brighter spell at Derby County. In short, the success of Clough’s time at Derby was to a greater or lesser extent determined by the skill of his assistant manager Peter Taylor (David Chafer), and the play flits between the two clubs with every scene change.
Knowledge of football tactics and methodologies is not required to get absorbed into proceedings. This is helped by Clough’s dismissive attitude towards the sort of preparations for matches undertaken by Don Revie, who was so successful he only left in order to become manager of the England football team. Clough’s vision was certainly admirable in wanting to change what was apparently perceived as “dirty Leeds” into a squad that won matches and competitions without notoriously bad disciplinary records.
It is also admirable that the Red Ladder Theatre Company, based in Leeds, would include in its fictionalisation of a fictionalisation, details of less desirable aspects of Revie’s era, respecting Leeds United’s most successful manager (in terms of silverware) whilst not deifying him. The production seems to suggest that the spirits of both Revie and Clough live on, inasmuch as there are certain managers (no names) these days who bully or indulge in belligerence – whether in football or any other field (so to speak).
As a football fan in the audience reliably informed me afterwards, it is difficult – no, impossible – for the sad ending to be treated as a tragedy, given Clough’s later success with Nottingham Forest. Admittedly, I found myself looking this up when I got home: Clough managed Forest for eighteen years – the end of the play’s story is not the end of Clough’s story. But this does not, all things considered, detract from what is a slick production, with extensive use of video projections craftily supporting the dialogue. The passionate descriptions from Clough and Taylor about key matches in their Derby days displayed how much zeal and devotion lies in competitive sports.
A surprising amount of the plot is relatable for many, whether it’s workplace pressures or personal ambition, being away from home or dealing with detractors and the consequences of one’s own mistakes. An intriguing portrait of a man who had an ability to inspire and aggravate is painted through this briskly-paced production, and the charismatic performances make this a compelling play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Combining fiction, fact and hearsay, David Peace’s compelling 2006 best-seller is an account of Brian Clough‘s disastrous 44-day period as manager of Leeds United. In a stripped-back staging, directed by Red Ladder’s artistic director Rod Dixon, a company of three- Luke Dickson (Brian Clough), David Chafer (Peter Taylor) and Jamie Smelt (Sam Longson/Syd Owen/Jack Kirkland et al) – take audiences up-close to the sweat, fury and power-struggles from pitch-side and inside the flawed but brilliant mind of ‘Old Big ‘ed’. The story of a troubled genius slamming-up against his limits, THE DAMNED UNITED brings to life the beauty and brutality of football, the working man’s ballet.
Performances: 13-17 November 2017, 7.30pm, £13, £11 concs.
Press night: Tue 14 November, 7.30pm.
Pleasance, Carpenters Mews, North Road, London, N7 9EF.