The Damned United at West Yorkshire Playhouse

The Damned Utd by David Peace is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read.

There is the literary style, the content and also the way it is set out in days rather than chapters, but with each day split into two parts, one part in normal type relating Brian Clough’s reign as manager of Leeds United and the other part in italics charting his demise at the helm of Derby County.  A film was made of it, which was a total disaster, so it was with great trepidation that I approached West Yorkshire Playhouse to see the stage version.

It is a Red Ladder Theatre Company presentation and they had the full backing of the author, who even donated the theatrical rights to them. Red Ladder is no ordinary theatrical outfit as, in addition to the run at the Playhouse, they will be taking the play to various community venues throughout the City, so if you can’t make it into town, check out the itinerary.

Although based on the infamous forty-four days which Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United in 1974, the more that David Peace interviewed the people who were there at the time, the more he found that their versions of events differed.  He, therefore, refers to the work as ‘An English Fairy Story’.

The scenery was sparse, to say the least, comprising a clear corrugated plastic backdrop which doubled as a screen on which to display the date and venue of the action as well as a few clips of footballing action contemporary to the dialogue. There were also three wire storage units, two coffee tables, one with a chair and supporting a bottle of Irish and two glasses, and the other a telephone. In this case less was more as everything worked brilliantly. Apart from a minor issue with a sound effect, every part of the production was beyond excellent.

It is not often that I can mention every member of the cast, but in this case it is no problem as it was a three-hander, with Brian Clough being played by Luke Dickson, whose performance was brilliant, covering all the emotions from arrogance, aggression and bombast through to grief and despair. He also has a wonderful sense of comedic timing which lightened the mood and stopped a tragic tale from becoming maudlin.

David Chafer as Peter Taylor, Clough’s long-time assistant manager at Hartlepool and Derby and his calming influence, was also superb in what could have been a supporting role but was as commanding as the lead.

Finally, there was the performance of Jamie Smelt whose credit in the programme reads ‘Manny Cousins (Leeds United chairman), Sam Longson (Derby chairman), and all other parts’. He performed the aforementioned roles impeccably and was also superb as Syd Owen, the Leeds United ‘researcher’ and devout Don Revie man. The other ‘member of the cast’ was the audience, who were addressed as if players and given a lambasting by Mr Clough and a pep talk by Mr Taylor.

Speaking of the audience, I was sitting next to a chap who, during one particularly intense scene, heckled the Brian Clough character who carried on manfully. I spoke to the gentleman in question after the play and he said that it had been so involving that he felt that he was back there in the place and time, but the minute he shouted out he was brought back to reality. I can think of no higher praise for a production than that it totally involves the audience and arouses the passion involved in the supporting of a football team. Everyone at Red Ladder deserves the highest praise and we wish them all the best in this their 50th year and also for the next fifty.

As a footnote, in the 1980s my wife and I bought a house which had been owned by Don Revie and by the strangest of coincidences, the chap who lived next door was called Tony Currie. What are the chances of that!

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