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Old Big 'Ead in The Spirit of Man

Stephen Lowe
A Nottingham Playhouse production
Sunderland Empire and touring
(2006)

Colin Tarrant as Brian Clough

In the last seven days, Sunderland's football team has been relegated from the Premiership and, on Monday, was comprehensively hammered by local rivals (enemies?) Newcastle. In the last two weeks we have seen two locally produced plays based on football: Worlds Apart at the Customs House and The Far Corner at the Gala. So would another play on the same theme be a game too many? Brian Clough, the central character of Old Big 'Ead in The Spirit of Man, does have a Sunderland connection: he scored 54 goals in 61 games for Sunderland and it was there that his playing career was brought to an abrupt end, in a collision with the Bury goalkeeper on Boxing Day in 1962, which caused severe damage to the cruciate ligament in his knee. He then went on to have a highly successful management career, particularly at Nottingham Forest, the team with whom he has become identified.

Would this be enough to overcome the seeming aversion of Empire audiences to plays? Certainly the theatre's marketing department have made major efforts, with hanging cards and flyers all over the town and much publicity in the local press. But with a 2,000 seat theatre to fill, even if only for the three nights the play is running, they faced a significant challenge. In the event, the first night audience was larger than I had expected.

But what of the play? It isn't about football but about the man, which makes it sound like a biographical piece, which it most certainly is not. Cloughie has died and gone to heaven where he is expected to provide inspiration for the living (East Midlands Division). Due to an almost illegible message (the ink has run because of the steam from the shower!), he, rather than that other Nottingham hero Robin Hood, goes to help existentialist playwright Jimmy (John Lloyd Fillingham) who is having problems with both his married life and his play. This was a mistake - the garbled message mentioned "lost" and "forest" (as in lost in Sherwood Forest, but Cloughie takes it to mean Notts Forest FC losing yet again) - but nonetheless Old Big 'Ead (which is how Clough described himself when he was awarded the OBE - O(ld) B(ig) E(ad): geddit?) takes over.

It's partially a tribute to Brian Clough, partially a play about writing a play, and partially a love story. It's light-hearted, with elements of comedy and parody - for Cloughie one of the great British playwrights is Ernie Wise! - with some neat jabs at theatrical types.

It isn't an entirely successful amalgam of themes, however. There are moments which feel like padding and a number of the songs, which are intended to signal relationship changes, merely slow the piece down, even though they are well performed by the cast.

Indeed all the seven-strong cast are very good but Colin Tarrant is outstanding as Brian Clough and actor Gerald Maynard. The latter is a nice portrayal of a rather sad old queen but it is as Clough that he really shines: he captures the voice and mannerisms (vocal and physical) of the eccentric football genius to perfection.

My colleague Steve Orme, in his review of the premiere at Nottingham Playhouse, wondered if the play would work outside of the area. It does, but I suspect we lost a lot of the Notts Forest references. However it is entertaining, with its strange mix of football and theatre providing laughs and just a little sharp satire, and certainly Tarrant's is a performance to savour. However I can't help but feel that it would benefit from being performed in a smaller, more intimate theatre like the Nottingham Playhouse which is around about a third of the size of the Empire.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan