Old Big 'Ead in The Spirit of the Man

Stephen Lowe
Nottingham Playhouse
(2005)

In these days when so-called celebrities are revered as never before, epithets are often overused. Words such as "legend" and "greatness" soon come to lose their true meaning, being applied to anyone who hasn't even experienced fifteen minutes of fame.

Few people, even those without the slightest interest in football, would disagree that Brian Clough was a legend. He led both Derby County and Nottingham Forest to the league championship and also turned the team based on the banks of the Trent into the finest outfit in Europe.

Apart from that, he was incredibly witty, warm, generous and eccentric, which endeared him to thousands who never came into contact with him in the environs of a football ground.

His multi-faceted character makes it extremely difficult for anyone to portray him on stage. So cheers all round for Stephen Lowe who's audaciously put together a new play which celebrates Cloughie's genius as a man rather than his exploits as a manager.

Lowe couldn't have presented this tribute without a strong actor in the title role - and Colin Tarrant is the ideal choice. The man born in Shirebrook, just over the Derbyshire border, who was Inspector Munroe in The Bill for twelve years, is stunning as Clough. His voice, mannerisms, demeanour and green sweatshirt lead you to believe that you're actually watching Clough himself. And, naturally enough, Old Big 'Ead gets most of the witticisms and funny lines.

For Nottingham Forest fans, some of the words are painfully accurate, as when Cloughie points out that he left the club in a mess and they've been wallowing there ever since.

Directed by Forest season-ticket holder Alan Dossor, the play begins with Brian meeting fellow Nottinghamshire greats D H Lawrence, Lord Byron and General Booth in heaven. They're ready to inspire the living in their own specific field. Brian dismisses their calling with a vitriolic: "No offence, but men can go a fair time without sex, politics or religion, but they can hardly get through the month of August without a game of footie!"

When an angel gets a garbled message containing the words "lost" and "forest", Brian believes it's a job for him and returns to earth only to find a writer, Jimmy, struggling with his new play about Robin Hood.

The first act races along, with Tarrant also superb as the affectatious Gerald, the actor chosen to play Robin Hood, and Ken Bradshaw impressive as the belligerent Jimmy buckling under the pressure of producing his play on time.

However, this is a play of two halves, with the second half being less successful. It gets bogged down when the play within a play about Robin Hood is performed. It's almost a parody but it's very stodgy and the songs in it merely slow down the action to a pace favoured by Forest on a hot August afternoon.

Even then Brian comes up with cutting, truthful remarks. He tells Jimmy, "you've got to come up with something with more bite" and after a rehearsal Brian sarcastically points out, "Well, that's not a lorra lorra laughs, young man."

Old Big 'Ead in The Spirit of the Man has more to shout about than the Forest team last season but the production lacks universal appeal. Cloughie was respected all over the country but the play is so wrapped up with Nottinghamshire and Forest that I can't see it being performed anywhere outside the county. It would be especially unwelcome in Derby because the only mention of the Rams concerns the animosity between Clough and his former assistant Peter Taylor.

However, if you're a Forest fan you'll love this, especially Jamie Vartan's superb set. The lift which transports Brian from heaven to earth opens up at one stage to reveal Forest's packed trophy cabinet and it also becomes the trunk of the resplendent Major Oak in Sherwood Forest.

At the end, a model of a floodlit City Ground emerges from the top of the trunk, with Brian poking his head through the middle as he sings his favourite Sinatra song My Way in a rousing finale.

On the whole, the play sits just above mid-table. But Tarrant gives a star performance worthy of the Premiership.

"Old Big 'Ead in The Spirit of the Man" runs until June 25th

Peter Lathan reviewed the touring production at the Sunderland Empire

Steve Orme