The 44 days Brian Clough took charge of Leeds United in 1974 were a spectacular failure, immortalised in a best-selling book by David Peace and a blockbuster film by Tom Hooper.
The Damned United at the Lowry brings us back inside those doomed days but by focusing on the relationship between Clough and his right-hand man Peter Taylor. In the end there’s enough to interest new and old fans alike.
Split between his disastrous time at Leeds and his promising career with Derby County until then, we see a Clough in both victory and defeat, often back-to-back. Anyone expecting a grand production like the film may be a little disappointed, however.
Produced by the Red Ladder Theatre Company, the play first premiered in Leeds two years ago and since its initial sell-out run the show has been on the road.
The production is so mobile because of its small and compact set-up. Alongside a few chairs, the minimal set design includes an axe and a bottle of whiskey, instantly revealing a little bit about the ferocious and troubled Brian Clough.
Not only is the set pared back, the cast is too. Luke Dickson and David Chafer play the roles of Clough and Taylor, respectively, with Jamie Smelt playing all other parts.
Most notably, Smelt plays the chairman of both Derby and Leeds, along with various men behind the scenes. This gives him a lot to do and requires plenty of speedy costume changes but he does it with ease.
Having one actor play all these roles also gives credence to Clough’s belief that all chairmen are the same and helps take us inside his mind.
Without any of Clough’s players on the stage, Dickson speaks directly to members of the audience – often berating or cajoling them with a few trademark Clough-isms. This is when the play is at its intimate best and funniest, taking us inside the dressing room and letting us see Cloughie in full flow.
Dickson faces a huge task in trying to be as charismatic and entertaining as both Michael Sheen in the film, and Old Big ‘Ead himself. He gives us ample evidence why so many saw him as arrogant but perhaps not quite as much charm as Sheen brought to the role.
Without a larger cast, Dickson does most of the heavy lifting and is on stage for almost every moment of the 65-minute run time. Having to jump quickly from joy to despair is no easy feat but he expertly shows us where Clough’s fortunes lie with as little as a shrug of the shoulders.
The spotlight is thus on Clough the entire time, just the way it was during the great man’s 28-year managerial career. The Damned United is ultimately about a great man’s ego getting in the way of his own success and costing him his job – a universal tale if ever there was one.
There’s even a certain manager in Manchester who might just learn a lesson or two from this himself…