The last time I saw this Leeds United were in the midst of one of their regular comedic play offs collapse, but now they are riding high in the Premier League this punchy tale of hubris at Elland Road has extra resonance.
It’s nominally the tale of Brian Howard Clough’s disastrous 44 day reign at Yorkshire’s biggest club after taking unfancied Derby County to the First Division title, but it is a story about obsession and madness that will reach non football fans too.
The Damned United is based on David Peace’s semi-fictional novel tracing Clough’s descent into a personal hell. Anders Lustgarten’s tight adaptation captures all the psychological demons swirling round Ol’ Big Head’s fractured psyche as he takes on a team of seasoned pros loyal who he hates as ‘cheats’, but they hate the cocky newcomer even more refusing to march on together.
But as much as this is about the self-styled greatest man never to manage England, it is a love story between Clough and his faithful right-hand man and alter ego, Peter Taylor. Despite struggling with grief, and possibly PTSD, after his playing career was cut short by injury plus plenty of alcohol, Clough decided to march right into the lion’s den without Taylor, and not surprisingly it goes horribly, horribly wrong.
Anyone who wonders why this still matters should have been at the regular post show Q and A sessions the cast held during their last tour where the visceral hatred towards Clough five decades on was vented in no uncertain terms. Never forget that to fans football matters and there is no statute of limitations on resentments.
Luke Dickson once again pulls off the trick of capturing Clough’s essence with a strut, a bellow or a mere tilt of the head, but never turns him into a caricature. He easily slips between bombast and the damaging insecurity at the core of Clough as he manically self-destructs time and time again.
His foul mouth sparring with David Chafer’s more low-key Taylor, who had a real eye for playing talent, is beautifully played by both men who have real chemistry. Chafer elegantly captures all Taylor’s resentments about playing second fiddle, but also his deep love for his mate based on an often toxic codependency.
Jamie Smelt manfully takes on a number of roles, and is particularly good as Leeds Chairman Manny Cussins, who spent every hour of those 44 days regretting signing a troubled man that openly despised all football directors.
Signe Beckmann’s simple set plays sweeper to the cast’s energetic acting both as a blank canvas and an audio visual aid bringing United’s team of malcontents into the action.
On the way out one fan remarked that that was ‘as much about Clough as Leeds’. Yes and no, because you can’t make any sense of how a genius like Clough made such a mess of things without understanding the complexity of a man who seemed to want to fail at Elland Road before rising again down the road at Nottingham Forest.
The Damned United is on tour and to find out where go to The Damned United – Red Ladder Theatre Company websites.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 11th June 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★