The Damned United review – Brian Clough drama is a game of two halves

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Clough’s ill-fated tenure at Leeds United is turned into a finely performed, if loosely structured, three-hander

It’s a book, a film and a play. Their subject is the outspoken football manager Brian Clough (1935-2004) and his disastrous 44 days at Leeds United in 1974, following on from six triumphant years at Derby County. Where David Peace’s 2006 novel, subtitled “An English Fairy Story”, deftly threads facts into fiction, Tom Hooper’s 2009 film focused on reality. Anders Lustgarten’s stage adaptation (pared down from his 2016 hit, also for Red Ladder Theatre Company) springs from Peace’s fiction. The action ricochets between imaginative interpretation and documentary detail (period footage flickers across a corrugated plastic backdrop).

Under Rod Dixon’s direction, scenes pass swiftly between Clough’s past at Derby and his present at Leeds (an occasionally confusing structure). In both past and present, Clough battles against multiple foes – many of his own making: against chairmen and boards; against corruption in the game; against his assistant manager and increasingly exasperated best friend, Peter Taylor (finely rendered by David Chafer, with all other roles delivered with shape-shifting skill by Jamie Smelt).

Clough’s hardest battle is with the ever-present bottle of whisky shining amber on a side table, which he first avoids but cannot resist. This is subtly played by Luke Dickson – eyes slide, hand hovers as Clough is drawn to, retreats from, becomes unable to resist the drink – in a performance that is not an imitation but an essentialised portrait of a driven, complex man.

The Damned United trailer.

The Damned United tours until 21 April


Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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