U.K. Review: "The Damned United" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Critic

In 2016, Red Ladder Theatre Company brought to life a story that took the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre, and subsequently stages around the country, by storm. That story, the story of the notoriously outspoken football manager Brian Clough, came in the form of their adaptation of David Peace’s acclaimed novel The Damned United. Now, almost two years later, and after achieving widespread success with their adaptation, Red Ladder have brought the production back to Leeds with a new cast and refreshed staging.

The Damned United is set in 1974, with successful manager Brian Clough (Luke Dickson) being brought in to manage the team that’s long been the butt of his witticisms and ribbings: Leeds United. We watch as he works with his assistant manager Peter Taylor (David Chafer), and witness the conflict and internal struggles he faces as he lasts no more than 40 days with the team. Completing the cast is Jamie Smelt, who plays a variety of greedy directors and coaches that bat off the indifference of an outspoken but driven man. 

Speeding along in just over an hour and ten minutes, Anders Lustgarten’s adaptation of the novel is certainly volatile in the hands of director Rod Dixon. A combination of both extended and short vignettes, the adaption plays host to some lovely moments that share the very human truth and need for individual success and self-satisfaction with the audience. Dixon evokes these moments through drawing out the inner turmoils of Clough and Taylor, and really pushes them forward into the foreground to turn the performance space into an intense, engaging environment.

 Photo: Malcolm I. Johnson.

Photo: Malcolm I. Johnson.

Through focusing his directorial lens in this way, Dixon allows his performers to truly shine in their roles, and all of the sensitive detail that has gone into crafting the characters oscillates with gripping storytelling as the piece unfolds. Dickson’s Clough is boisterous, quietly simmering and coming to the boil under the pressure of the play-world. His performance is confident, and he concisely captures the portrait of a man always pushing himself and others onto greater things - there’s even a poeticism in his torrent of swearing and ribbings of the football world. 

A’s Taylor is also a well-considered and engaging portrayal, and one that is well poised to highlight the strained relationship between the two characters, presenting us with the true value of walking away from situations that are both inevitably and unfathomably unresolvable. Smelt also pitches in some firmly enjoyable characterisations and further helps the piece to shine with truth and performative conviction. The trio of performers work well together as an ensemble, and it is enjoyable to watch as their individual energies come together and collide in Dixon’s intensely engrossing manifestation of the narrative world.

Enhancing these performances is a scenography that effectively galvanizes and intensifies the action and performances. Tim Skelly’s lighting design powerfully assists in dividing up the performative space and the play-world, in terms of locations and the domination of moods and atmospheres. Nina Dunn’s multimedia pieces help to bolster and enhance the scale of the narrative, filling out both the performance space and the audience’s collective imagination with projections of other characters and the details regarding locations and the number of days during Clough’s tenure with Leeds. Bringing everything together is also Dunn’s minimalist set design, which once again pushes to intensify the action - and a lack of props and furniture creates the sense of a vast expanse, highlighting Clough’s isolation as a character to great effect. 

The Damned United is a short, snappy and potent piece of theatre that brings audiences face to face with memorable characters and moments. With strong performances and firm directorial clarity, this is a piece that invites audiences to empathise their own struggles with the play’s characters, making this one trip to the theatre you won’t soon forget. 

 

The Damned United is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse Yorkshire Playhouse until April 7th and then continues on tour around Leeds. For more information and tickets, visit: https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/the-damned-united/