The Damned United – Derby Theatre

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I did not attend this production as a neutral observer. As a teenager I watched Clough manage his great Derby side at the Baseball Ground, then later admired his triumphs with Nottingham Forest, found his television appearances as a pundit unmissable, and was at Portman Road for his final game as a manager. I found David Peace’s book to be amongst the best ever written about football, and the film a very good effort at bringing him to cinema. So it would be fair to say that my expectations were high, my critical faculties sharply tuned. Could the play seal a treble?

This run opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which was brave. Leeds was hostile on his appointment as manager of their club, and it went downhill from there. By contrast, here at Derby, he was on home turf, the tiered seating of the theatre doubling for the Popside. In Derby they named a road after him, in Leeds the players and fans would have liked to have buried him under one.

Clough as a character has all the ingredients of great drama. A promising playing career cut short by injury leaving him with a burning desire to prove himself. Rags to riches success with Derby and Forest. “The Fall” at Leeds. The bromance with Peter Taylor, and the personal demons which both drove, and haunted him.

It is difficult , over forty years on, for those who were not around at the time, to grasp the grip that Clough had on the then contemporary football psyche. “Big ‘Ead”, along with Malcolm Allison, paved the way for the modern celebrity manager of whom Mourinho is the most obvious heir.

popside

The Glory Days

 

 

The now levelled Baseball Ground was a cauldron of emotion and noise, the Popside the cheerleaders from the terraces, the upper seated tiers stamping their approbation, Cloughie the conductor to the faithful’s chorus. It was a working class theatre where triumph and failure unfolded, and heroes and villains played their parts. From the age of those in the opening night audience, many had come to relive their long lapsed roles. The ghosts of those now far off football battles returned as Mackay, Nish, Davies, and Hector once more confronted Giles, Bremner, Hunter and Charlton on the pitch, while Sam Longson and Manny Cussins watched from the Directors box, and Don Revie pored over his dossiers. The love of the Ossie Road End, and the disdain of the Gelderd End, was nostalgically evoked.

Anders Lustgarten’s new stage adaptation attempts to convert what has previously worked so well on page and screen, to stage, in this Red Ladder production. As with the book, the drama is of Clough’s fateful 44 days at Leeds and his essential, but flawed working and personal relationship with his assistant, Peter Taylor, played with laconic fortitude by Tony Bell.

Andrew Lancel’s Clough is troubled, brash and vulnerable, slave to his passion for footballing success, and his dependence upon alcohol. Derby County’s players are balletic masked figurines. Leeds United’s are anonymous mannequins. Lustgarten’s production aspires to Shakespearean tragedy for this production, and largely delivers it. Lancel has to carry numerous soliloquy’s, only briefly interspersed by scenes with Peter Taylor, and the Derby and Leeds Boards, in a performance of energy, commitment and intelligence.

The set, comprising four white lines and a table, supported by video backdrop, with soundscapes by Isobel Waller-Bridge and Nina Dunn, is brilliantly realised by designer Signe Beckmann, and lighting director Tim Skelly. A strong multi- role cast provides a fine squad with John Graham Davies as Derby County Chairman Sam Longson/ Syd Owen/ Bolton, Tom Lorcan as McKenzie, and Tony Turner as Manny Cousins/Jack Kirkland. Davies portrayal of Leeds’ Syd Owen is a comic delight and an essential counterpoint to his new manager’s bombast.

Lustgarten’s script is far closer to Peace’s novel than Tom Hooper’s film version, jumping back and forth between the Derby glory days and the black ones at Leeds. To those unfamiliar with the story, this could be occasionally confusing, but so long as you remember that when Taylor is on stage they are in Derby, and when Clough is on his own they are in Leeds, the narrative works.

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The Clough family, most notably represented by locally resident son Nigel, currently managing promotion chasing Burton Albion to join Leeds and Derby in the second tier, has been steadfastly hostile both to Peace’s book, and Hooper’s film. I doubt whether they will be found in the audience for this production. Which is a shame, as the play celebrates Clough’s achievements and portrays his flaws and temporary downfall (he was to spectacularly rise again at Nottingham Forest) in an Everyman sense, not as personal spite. An omnipresent bottle of scotch whiskey is a reminder of his alcoholism, the language is often crude male machismo, but the story is skewed more in favour of his glory days at the Baseball Ground than his Leeds agony. This is no hatchet job.

Clough was an intensely private man behind a brash façade with more front than Buckingham Palace. The latter trait was consummately exploited by Lancel, in a portrayal which eschewed any attempt at mimicry or imitation, in favour of getting to grips with the essence of a man, bereft at the sudden loss of his mother, and obsessed with money, even at the expense of his right hand man Taylor.

Rod Dixon’s lively production falls just short of extra time at 85 minutes, with no half time interval, and is an authentic and compelling sketch of one of football’s greatest characters. In parts, the statistics heavy dialogue, whilst mirroring Peace’s method and intent, is at the expense of the drama. The cognoscenti know the detail, the non-football fan doesn’t care. And the finale is a little awkward. But the passion of the man prevails culminating in the finest moment of the play when Clough and Taylor part for Leeds and Brighton. The unspoken cry from the audience is; “ Don’t!”

Clough leads out a less than enthusiastic Leeds team

Clough leads out a less than enthusiastic Leeds team

As the cast took their bows the applause rolled down the aisles with an intensity more commonly associated with a vital league win, than an opening night. Derby people know their theatre as well as they know their football, as the heightened response to Tony Bell’s bow as Peter Taylor bore testament to. Of course Lancel took the plaudits, not only for his performance but on behalf of a bona fide local legend.
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After the curtain calls and an interval, the cast and director took an impromptu question and answer session which was very well attended and provided numerous gossipy titbits. Some Leeds players had attended the West Yorkshire Playhouse performances, including Peter Lorimer and Norman Hunter, at which Don Revie’s name was called out and Clough was  (playfully) booed by some, and Tony Bell had met with Peter Taylor’s daughter who had provided several insights into her father and confirmed that it was Clough’s attitude towards Taylor’s remuneration which had irreparably breached their relationship. The Clough family are still hostile to the project.

Andrew Lancel was particularly interesting and honest during this session, emphasising the scale of learning and performing the part and demonstrating a depth of talent far beyond his enjoyable “Bad boy” role in Coronation Street as Frank Foster. He is also fleet of foot in handling questions. When I asked him to what extent the play was about football, and to what extent it was about personal tragedy, he replied;” What do you think?”

This is a fine attempt to bring the drama of football to the stage, and it is to the credit of both Red Ladder Theatre and Derby Theatre and Sarah Brigham that they have succeeded so admirably in doing so.

The Damned United runs till Saturday 16th April.

Director and cast take questions after the performance

Director and cast take questions after the performance

This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.

http://www.behindthearras.com/

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