Review: The Damned United, Unity Theatre, Liverpool
There’s no doubt about it, it’s an inspiring story.
Respected, longstanding radical theatre company loses all its Arts Council funding. It faces an uncertain future. But as it builds a campaign to rally support, an acclaimed author gives it the stage rights to his best-selling novel for almost nothing – rights that could have earned plenty if sold elsewhere.
This other story though, the one about Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leeds United? It’s fascinating, and a cautionary tale of sorts. But inspiring? I don’t think that’s a word I’d choose.
The theatre company in question is Leeds-based Red Ladder and the author is David Peace, who grew up in Ossett. The novel is The Damned United, his dark psychological study of one of the most grimly compelling periods in English football: the month and a bit during which Brian Clough, having led Derby County to the league championship, tried and spectacularly failed to get a grip on Leeds.
Don Revie’s Leeds, that is. And that’s a detail that isn’t incidental.
Originally staged as a co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse and performed at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre for just one night, The Damned United has been adapted from Peace’s novel by Anders Lustgarten and is directed by Rod Dixon. With just three performers and a stripped back set – a bottle of whisky, a telephone, a sheet of corrugated plastic that serves as a colour-coded backdrop and projection screen – the play quickly locks into the repetitions and rhythms of Peace’s distinctive prose.
Delivered primarily as a series of interlocking monologues and sparse, stylised exchanges, the play is far closer to the spirit of the novel than was Stephen Frears’ 2009 film version. As the story leaps back and forth between the triumphant Derby years and the desperate Leeds days, we are drawn into a grubby 1970s world of cigar smoke and whisky, sideburns and hubris, a world in which northern braggarts clutch football’s purse strings rather than shadowy Russian oligarchs.
Luke Dickson is excellent as Clough, combining the man’s arrogance and entitlement with a tumbler full of corrosive obsessions: drink, Don Revie, dirty Leeds. Equally crucial is David Chafer as Peter Taylor, the quieter, put-upon half of an on-off professional partnership that scaled the domestic heights at Derby (and eventually, the European heights at Nottingham Forest), but that left Clough tackling Leeds on his own. And as Clough says in the play, pleading with Taylor to join him at Elland Road, “I can’t do it without you. I don’t like to be alone.”
The play is short, just an hour long with no interval, and the ending – a chink of light at the end of a 44-day tunnel – feels a little abrupt. In keeping with the source material, the poetic repetitions come so thick and fast that a longer running time would probably prove wearing, but even so, there are moments when the rapid pace feels as though it could usefully be slackened. It might enable the play to probe Clough’s internal world even deeper, as I left the theatre feeling it hadn’t quite gone far enough.
Having said that, this is a very enjoyable production. While Clough is generally admired for reaching the pinnacle of European football with an unfashionable team, he remains problematic in Liverpool due to comments he made about Hillsborough. However, this largely football-loving Liverpool audience recognised his wit and humour as well as his complexity and flaws, and the generous response reflected the quality of the show.
It’s not an inspiring story, that’s for sure, but it’s a good one, well told. And if it’s inspiration you want, remember that Red Ladder is 50-years-old next year. And unlike Derby, Leeds or Nottingham Forest, it’s still at the top of its game.
The Damned United was at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, for one night only. It travels to Edinburgh where it will be at The Pleasance from August 2-28, 2017.
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