It’s very tempting, given this is a play which began life as a David Peace novel, to write this entire review as a pastiche of Peace’s unique writing style: “the writer stepped onto the train platform, and breathed in Leeds. Leeds. The North. To see Clough. Clough. That Clough. The Clough. Clough. Leeds. Two words. Linked. But never liked. No, never liked. Not Clough. Not Leeds. Then there’s Revie. Clough. Revie. Two names. Linked. But never liked”. That sort of thing.
That would be a bad idea though, as nobody writes quite like David Peace. His use of repetition and stream of consciousness was used to terrific effect in his 2006 novel about Brian Clough’s doomed 44 days as manager of Leeds United in 1974 – it was not so much a novel about football, but a dark and deeply psychological portrait of a hugely talented yet deeply flawed individual. It was widely thought to be unfilmable, which Tom Hooper sort of proved to be true in his film adaptation, a far brighter, more broadly comedic version of the tale.
Therefore, a theatrical adaptation from the Leeds-based Red Ladder company is an intriguing idea. The first thing to say is that writer Anders Lustgarten sticks far closer to Peace’s novel than Hooper did – he follows the same framing structure as the book in which Clough’s troubled time in charge of Leeds is interspersed with flashbacks to his more successful spell managing Derby County. Rod Dixon’s brisk 85 minute production makes good use of video back projection and he replaces the footballers with both shop mannequins in the dressing rooms scenes, and on the pitch an ensemble of dancers which brilliantly captures the balletic nature of the ‘beautiful game’.
Like its source material, this is not really a play about football but rather a study of obsession and, when it comes to Clough’s relationship with his managerial partner, Peter Taylor, an examination of a very Northern type of male friendship. Andrew Lancel perfectly captures Clough’s arrogance, charm and bloody-mindfulness, doing an uncanny impression of his peculiar, clipped Yorkshire accent. Tony Bell excels too as Taylor, the ying to Clough’s yang, and it’s genuinely heartbreaking when the two fall out. The rest of the cast do a fine job of portraying the chairmen and board members of Leeds and Derby, but it’s the Clough and Taylor partnership you remember.
So although you don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy The Damned United, it does helps – there’s a cheeky moment halfway through where Clough is bitterly criticising his arch rival, and predecessor as Leeds manager, Don Revie: “anyone can cheat, anyone can lie, anyone can put 10 men behind the ball” Lancel complains, and behind him a photograph of Revie is replaced by one of Jose Mourinho. It’s a clever moment, but one that suddenly brings you out of the play as you remember how much this game has changed over the past 40 years.
Clough’s psychological torment is well represented as the play reaches its conclusion – his inability to kickstart his career at Leeds takes its toll, and then Taylor suffers a heart attack, and Clough’s mother suddenly dies. The dark spiral is sad, but fails to be too affecting as we, with the benefit of hindsight, know that more glories and two European Cups were to follow with Nottingham Forest. Still, the ever present bottle of whiskey on stage provides a sad reminder of the role that alcohol played in Clough’s death.
It will no doubt be a bittersweet watch for fans of Leeds United, and of the man himself, but Lancel’s charismatic performance and Dixon’s ingenious staging, means that, against the odds, Peace’s unique vision is well translated to the stage.
The Damned United is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 2nd April 2016. Click here for tickets.