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The Damned United review: Clough returns to Leeds

14 March 2016
The Damned United review: Clough returns to Leeds
If you’re not a football fan you’d be forgiven for thinking The Damned United is a play you wouldn’t enjoy. David Peace’s novel on which it’s based does indeed focus on one of English football’s most famous events: outspoken Brian Clough’s ill-fated forty-four-day stint as the manager of Leeds United. But at its core Anders Lustgarden’s stage adaption of The Damned United is more about Clough’s fragility than football.

A Clough act to follow

Co-produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Red Ladder Theatre Company, Peace has charitably donated the stage rights to support the latter. Securing the rights for just £3.68, a penny per page, the play is the focus of the Save the Red Ladder campaign, set up after the theatre company lost 100% of its Arts Council funding.

Staged in one 75-minute act, and set entirely within the symbolic white lines of a football pitch, the play recounts the 1974 events that led to Clough’s swift resignation from Leeds United. Non-linear, a certain pre-existing knowledge of Clough’s career is expected, which the Leeds audience were unsurprisingly familiar with. All the while his later alcoholism is foreshadowed by a conspicuously positioned whisky bottle on the side of the stage.

Tackling the complex role of Clough, Andrew Lancel adroitly captures the frenetic energy of the “greatest manager England never had”. Voicing Clough’s well-documented sentiments towards Leeds (“This hateful, hateful place”), the audience is reminded early on why he might not have been warmly welcomed by his new club.

Michael Sheen’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Clough in the 2009 film of the same name must be a tough act to follow. However, Lancel masterfully mimics Clough’s famous mannerisms and is supported by a strong performance from Tony Bell as Peter Taylor.

Standing in Don Revie’s shadow

Don Revie’s image is periodically projected onto the back wall, a reminder that present or not all events take place under the watchful eye of the Club’s former manager. This also serves to highlight the Revie-shaped chip sitting on Clough’s shoulder; perceived past slights given as a driving force for his attempted upheaval of the English champs.

The Damned United 2

In locker room scenes, the controversial players are depicted by seven-foot-tall faceless mannequins, indicative of Clough’s blind distaste for the entire team. They are less players, more leftover symbols of his grudge against Revie. The matches are played out with choreography, which can seem incongruous with the otherwise dialogue driven action.

It’s the intensity of Clough’s relationships, not just with Revie but his long-time partner Peter Taylor and his mother, that are the real focal points of the play. His professional and emotional dependence on Taylor, and vice versa, echoes Clough’s real-life insistence that he was unable to manage without his right-hand man: “I am the shop window and he is the goods in the back.”

His outward bravado shatters in the wake of his mother’s passing (“The end of everything good, the start of everything bad”) and it’s at this point his determination to surpass Revie begins to wane. He begins to feel the crushing weight of his predecessor’s legacy more acutely, the rivalry cleverly culminating with Lancel adopting Clough’s position in that famous Yorkshire Television interview.

The other characters are there purely to provide the chaotic Clough with a wall to hurl himself against. His Revie is a construct, Taylor a crutch, but it’s not about them. It’s a play about the man behind the media tour de force, his obsessions and his weaknesses; his fortes and his downfalls.

He’s finally back in Leeds, where so many hopes were pinned on him in ’74, but this time it’s for theatre and not football. And even Cloughie would agree the Red Ladder campaign is a worthy reason for his return to this hateful, hateful place.

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Sophie’s a jack of all writing trades. A freelance journalist and copywriter, writing culture features and opinion pieces makes her world go round.
Photography by Malcom I. Johnson