A respected critic suggested that you can only really enjoy The Damned United if you are a football fan which is as idiotic as suggesting you could only love King Lear if you have lived under a mad monarch in the Dark Ages.
So just ignore that Southern snobbery because this tale of working class hero Brian Howard Clough’s descent from league winning boss into madness is a not just a football play, but a beautifully realised mediation on the flaws in any mercurial genius that ultimately doom them to fail.
Anyone expecting a theatrical version of the so-so Damned United movie will be disappointed as Anders Lustgarten has sensitively reworked the key elements of Dave Peace’s woozy, hallucinatory novel. The action flits from Clough’s doomed 44-day reign at Elland Road to his triumphs at the Baseball Ground with Derby County and back again.
Life-long Everton fan Andrew Lancel is onstage throughout wisely eschewing doing a cheap impersonation, but does enough to capture Clough’s distinctive speaking voice as he struts round the minimalist stage. His assured performance slowly reveals the inner demons that drove this complex man to the edge of his sanity at Elland Road, and into the bottom of a whisky glass.
There is plenty of football for the die-hards as the nascent manager builds his managerial career after injury robbed him of his playing days as a free-scoring centre forward, and Lustgarten asks us to consider whether Clough ever really recovered from the premature end to his career.
But at its heart The Damned United is a love story between Clough and his faithful sidekick/best mate/confidant/whipping boy Peter Taylor. Two pragmatic working class men who complemented each other perfectly, and yet can never quite acknowledge their feelings to each other in the way today’s metrosexuals are quite happy to do.
As part narrator and part touchstone Tony Bell is sensational as Taylor who knows he a is natural number two, but just wants a modicum of validation – something that that his best mate/tormentor is just incapable of giving. The often vicious verbal and physical interplay between the two as Clough battles various club chairmen, the FA and most of all himself is powerfully played by both leads.
The Derby County days is the section which football fans will enjoy the most as Clough transforms a team of journeymen into league champions. But it is his inexplicable decision to take on the fading dinosaurs of Don Revie’s squad at Elland Road who he described as ‘cheats’ that provide the real drama.
Without Taylor at his side, and mourning the death of his beloved Mam, Ol’ Big Head is easy meat for a United team who are cleverly represented by mute dummies onstage as their not so passive-aggressive tactics finally get their disintegrating ‘boss’ the sack.
Director Rod Dixon keeps the action moving along sharply as he focuses on Peace’s masterful deconstruction of football’s first real rock and roll star, and the only false note is the slightly am dram dancing by the ensemble which never captures the grace or power of professional footballers.
To paraphrase Cloughie slightly: I wouldn’t say The Damned United is best play written about football, but it is in the top one.
The Damned United home leg is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday April 2. To book online: www.wyp.org.uk or 0113 2137700 and the away leg at Derby Theatre from Thurs 7 to Saturday 16 April. To book www.derbytheatre.co.uk or 01332 593959.
All words by Paul Clarke. More writing by Paul on Louder Than War can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.