Jonathan Hall reviews The Damned United now playing at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
The Damned United
West Yorkshire Playhouse (Touring)
‘The Damned United’ is a cracking piece of theatre, telling of an event many have heard of, but not so many know in detail: Brian Clough’s troubled 44 days as manager of the mighty leviathan that was 1970’s Leeds United. However non football fans should not be put off by the subject matter; within Anders Lustgarden’s expert adaptation of David Peace’s novel there is plenty to engage, such as the concept of just how realistic is the notion of fair play in a game such as football (bearing in mind the current Australian ball tampering scandal), the wider question of principles vs. reality and above all (enabled by the play’s twin time structure) the notion of how the same elements of character can cause success in one setting (Clough at Derby) but result in car-crash failure in another (Clough at Leeds) It’s a piece of theatre that has you talking the bar afterwards and waking in the small hours mulling over.
One of the many strengths of the writing is the way in that the minutiae of detail necessary to tell the story- the deals, the matches, the tackles, the fouls, the dressing room pep talks and confrontations, which could easily lose the non football fan is presented as a series of sparring conversations/ confrontations between Clough and his put upon/ put down side kick Pete Taylor, meaning that the narrative is always powered by the intriguing and engaging emotional dynamic that was their relationship.
The direction by Rod Dixon suits this energetic style of story telling; a bare stage enables the many scenes and jumps in time to flow seamlessly, images projected on the back wall show silent players, frozen faces, at one point the shattering effects of a wielded axe.
The play is driven by Luke Dickson as Clough and David Chafer as Peter Taylor; the former eerily conjuring up the cadences of Clough’s speech patterns and although physically dissimilar a sense of his confident posturing in a way that never slips into caricature. Mention must also be made of the third cast member Jamie Smelt who plays a string of supporting characters so diversely that I was checking the programme to make sure they were all played by the same actor.
Perhaps one of the best elements of this highly successful show at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is the fact that ‘the Damned United’ is a local story, provoking a local attendance and response by people who are not necessarily theatregoers. At one point the depiction of United’s infamous dirty tricks provoked an angry heckle from a man in front of me; apparently when the show is staged in local working men’s clubs audience reaction and commentary is very much a part of the evening. But their enjoyment is beyond doubt, their engagement adding a powerful extra dynamic to this show.
All in all the evening can be summed up by one word said by someone sitting just behind me: “Quality.”
Until 7 April then touring.
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