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In Review: The Damned United at York Theatre Royal

Something is slightly different with this crowd. It isn’t obvious at first but then, you can’t not spot them. Couples of guys in football jerseys. Two friends here, a bunch there, guys night out. At the theatre. I’m not saying the theatre is classically more of an elderly couples or girls pre-drinks activity, but it kind of is? 

Yet, July the 15th night was different at York Theatre Royal. Lads were singing along as football chants were blasted from the scene. 

The play was quite unique. The Damned United, written by Anders Lustgarten (‘our most exciting political playwright’, say the national newspapers), remembers the debacle of Brian Clough as the manager of Leeds United.

Following the departure of Don Revie, to become England’s manager, Brian Clough was named as his successor. Infamous for his previous public criticism over the team’s playing style, Clough only lasted 44 days in his role. Only winning one game out of six under his hands, Clough earned the unofficial title as the ‘least successful permanent manager of Leeds United’.

The Red Ladder Theatre Company adapted the story of David Peace’s best-selling novel from 2006. The author donated the rights for his story to the Leeds based company for only £3.68 – a penny for each page in the novel –  as a show of support when the company received a 100% cut to Arts Council Funding.

On stage, Luke Dickson as Brian Clough, David Schafer as Peter Taylor and James Smelt as multiple characters are convincing. They convey the sheer enthusiasm of football, as well as the intense power, plays behind its organisation.

The dynamic stage design created a balanced fusion between space and time, to enrich the actor’s stage presence. The simple yet expressive setting was completed by the team of Nina Dunn, Tim Skelly and Ed Heaton.

Rod Dixon, artistic director of Red Ladder, says ‘As a story The Damned United has it all – passion, power struggles, tragedy and a classic anti-hero in Clough – which lends itself brilliantly to theatre. Anders’ adaptation captures the grit, poetry and darkness of David Peace’s writing, and by charting the fall of Brian Clough and exposing what made ‘Old Big ‘ed’ tick, audiences are given a fascinating insight into the troubled but brilliant mind of a flawed genius –who to this day, remains one of the most controversial figures in sporting history.’

No needs to like football to enjoy this one. The feelings evoked are universally understood. Rod Dixon, the director, chose a sober yet evocative screen that serves as set design. Chants, days, images of players can be seen, the way we would watch a game at home. 

Just a warning: the whole experience might be a bit tricky to grasp for non-native speakers, as the actors speak with strong Northern accents. But it’s worth a shot.

Written by Lucie Fehlbaum and Fruzsina Vida