The Damned United – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Matt Callard, March 2018
Every football fan loves the mythology of their own club. Which is why every Leeds United fan – including this writer – loves The Damned United, despite author David Peace’s loveless relationship with Elland Road, the oft-referenced ‘hateful, spiteful place’ of his 70s-set novel.
Peace has donated the theatrical rights of the book to Yorkshire’s Red Ladder Theatre Company, and it’s two years since the play debuted at West Yorkshire Playhouse. This first revival is a three-hander, with Luke Dickson clearly relishing the role of the indomitable Brian Clough – a character so meaty and multi-layered, that it’s to Dickson’s credit he never overplays it or panders to tired impersonation.
In Dickson’s hands Clough is full of outward bluster and charisma, but in quieter moments the cracks appear. Sensitive and paranoid, relying on right-hand-man Peter Taylor (David Chafer) like a crutch and utterly fixated on his Nemesis Don Revie, first as opponent and then as ghost-like presence, as he takes Revie’s place in the hallowed manager’s seat at then-Champions Leeds United for those fateful, eventful, dreadful 44 days.
Indeed, Revie’s aura is like a fourth character, forever on Clough’s shoulder; mentor and tormentor.
Two narratives run side-by-side: Clough and Taylor’s big adventure as they take Derby County to new heights and the Championship (at Leeds’s expense) – contrasting with a Taylor-less Clough, battling egos and history and the legacy of The Don during that embittered stint at Elland Road.
By running these periods side-by-side, we see a fully rounded portrait of Brian Clough. At Derby he’s ambitious, brilliant, unstoppable. At Leeds he’s cramped, wounded, alone. We see the drinker and the fighter, the bully and the victim, the wheeler-dealer playing hardball with skinflint chairmen and the little boy lost, weeping as a phone call informs him of his mum’s passing.
All along, Dickson brilliantly captures Clough’s unique persona and temperament, while a tight, neat script slowly reveals the cracks in his armoury.
A floor to ceiling screen forms the back of the stage. On it is a timeline, vintage football clips, that infamous Revie-Clough tête-à-tête on Calendar. There’s even a misplaced and anachronistic visual gag about José Mourinho that pointlessly breaks the fourth wall. It’s crass and not needed. The dark humour of the novel is finely balanced but intact in this adaptation, letting in just the right amount of pale light to the dark atmosphere.
Leeds and Derby fans, football fans, lovers of tense, intense theatre should see The Damned United. But don’t be put off if you’re not one of them – there’s enough human drama and food for thought in this story to appeal to just about anyone.
images: Malcij Photography