The Damned United
Anders Lustgarten from the novel by David Peace
Red Ladder and West Yorkshire Playhouse Co-Production
The Lowry, Salford
Adaptations from page to stage are rarely satisfactory; much of the complexity and depth of the source material is stripped away to allow for a manageable running time. However, David Peace’s factually based novel The Damned United is structured in stream of consciousness style going inside the tormented mind of the main character, which provides a surprisingly strong basis for adaptation into stage dialogue and narration.
In 1974, after an injury ended his career as footballer, Brian Clough (Luke Dickson) gets the chance to manage Leeds United, a team he has openly despised for years. Clough sees a chance for redemption in the opportunity to take the team into the European Cup. The process, however, is not easy; it strains the relationship between Clough and his assistant / best friend Peter Taylor (David Chafer) and drives the manager to seek solace in alcohol.
Anders Lustgarten’s adaptation is a marvel of concise and vivid storytelling. In the opening minutes of the play, the demons that drove Clough to push himself (and others) to extremes are made clear—the brutal injury that ended his career as a footballer and installed a fear of being alone. Clough is portrayed as a contradictory character: egotistical but heavily dependent upon the skills of Peter Taylor to achieve his ambitions and for a degree of moral guidance. Yet Clough cannot refrain from treating his friend badly and shamelessly takes financial rewards without passing any onto his assistant.
Director Rod Dixon sets a muscular atmosphere of characters in constant confrontation and conflict. The play is set, after all, in a period when crowds chanted that Leeds United was "dirty, dirty Leeds". The stream of consciousness style dialogue gives the cast—mainly David Chafer who also provides a narrative by filling in background detail—the opportunity to capture the breathless excitement of the football matches.
Nina Dunn’s set—corrugated plastic sheets upon which films of matches from the period are projected and through which one can glimpse players—has a faintly sinister feel. It provides an ominous background for Clough’s confrontations with board members (played by Jamie Smelt) that border on the edge of violence like scenes from a gangster movie.
Luke Dickson does not hide any of the unpleasant aspects of Brian Clough. Clough was a celebrity before we had celebrity culture and exulted in crowds chanting his name at matches. Dickson portrays Clough as his own worst enemy; an arrogant braggart capable of creating conflict where none existed with a hectoring know-it-all tone of voice. The vulnerability under the aggressive surface is, however, apparent in Dickson’s subtle gestures—sidelong glances and hesitant movements towards the ever-present whisky bottle.
The Damned United is one of the rare stage adaptations that definitely hits the back of the net.