I mentioned in my Great Expectations review that this season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is shaping up to be awesome, and it looks like I wasn’t wrong! I’m very excited to say that Red Ladder Theatre, after receiving cuts from the Arts Council and battling through tough times, are back with a brand new production! They’ve teamed up with the Playhouse to bring to the stage a new adaptation of The Damned United by David Peace, made even more popular by a major motion picture several years back. Now, in a new adaptation by Anders Lustgarten and directed by Red Ladder’s own Rod Dixon, the Courtyard Theatre is playing host to this poignant story.
The Damned United follows the brief period in which infamous football manager Brian Clough (Andrew Lancel) managed Leeds United for a total of 44 days, after the departure of Don Revie. It’s no wonder that he lasted so short a time with them, since he despised the team and they despised him. Throughout the play, he and assistant Peter Taylor (Tony Bell) narrate important aspects of Clough’s life and career, and give the audience an insight into the minds of one of the football world’s most memorable characters.
Theatre is known for bringing to life some interesting and relevant stories, and breathing new life into existing ones. This new adaptation of The Damned United does both of these things, and brings the audience face to face with a narrative about true determination, and explores the many facets of what it is to be human. Lancel is excellent as the outspoken Clough, capturing his forward nature in the smooth delivery of Lustgarten’s dialogue and giving a highly watchable, engaging performance. Bell also gives a highly watchable performance as Taylor, providing a clear point of contrast with Clough, adding an interesting dynamic to the piece.
The rest of the company, who play an array of football directors and associates also display great acting, seamlessly switching from character to character and keeping the narrative moving. There’s also an energetic ensemble of young performers who play masked footballers and press reporters. They regularly bring on conceptual set pieces and props such as mannequins dressed as football team members, a ringing phone and a bottle of whiskey, which Clough often turns to in times of weakness and difficulty. The movements of this ensemble are fluid and focused, and maintain the energy of the play throughout to convey the themes of the piece and keep the audience engaged.
Signe Beckmann’s excellent set design also deserves a mention; it’s simple and efficient, almost turning the Courtyard into a large black box that plays host to Clough and his world. Large rectangular pillars surround the stage, and regularly have images and clips of football games, fans chanting and Don Revie projected onto them. This creates a unique visual aesthetic, and gives the play, like its protagonist, an uncluttered and no-nonsense approach to saying things how they are. It allows the audience to focus on Clough’s narrative and engage with the themes of football and human emotion nicely.
I’m not really a massive football fan, and I’ve never been into it, but I can definitely point out The Damned United as an engaging piece of theatre that tackles its subject matter with ease and clarity. Even if you’re not into football, it showcases some cracking production aspects that come together to form a well-considered concept, and highlights Red Ladder as a truly brilliant theatre company.
The Damned United is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 2 April. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.
Photo: Malcolm I. Johnson