Review: The Damned United, West Yorkshire Playhouse

BRIAN Clough's short-lived and stormy tenure as manager of Leeds United in 1974 is brought to the stage by Red Ladder in a cracking new adaptation of David Peace's novel by playwright Anders Lustgarten.

Andrew Lancel plays Brian Clough in Red Ladder's production of The Damned United at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
Andrew Lancel plays Brian Clough in Red Ladder's production of The Damned United at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Closer to the spirit and stream-of-consciousness structure of Peace’s book than the 2009 film was, the production is first and foremost a beautifully crafted and imaginative piece of theatre. Presented with minimal set and props, at the centre is the bumpy 44-day ride that took Clough to a dark place – “if there’s a hell like Leeds United, there has to be a heaven somewhere” – at a club that didn’t welcome him and which he had previously openly criticised as ‘dirty cheats’.

Andrew Lancel as Clough and Tony Bell as his steady right-hand man Peter Taylor give strong, assured performances portraying the complicated interdependence of the two men with both great subtlety and raw emotional honesty – neither could properly function without the other – and they get solid support from John Graham Davies, Tom Lorcan and Tony Turner as various team members and boardroom figures. Lustgarten’s script captures the complexity of Clough as a flawed hero – there is self-belief verging on arrogance but also passionate vision and the thin-skinned vulnerability of a player whose promising career on the field ended prematurely due to serious injury.

Interspersed with the central narrative are flashbacks to Clough and Taylor’s glory days at Derby County, with the grace, physicality and drama of ‘the beautiful game’ powerfully conveyed through the balletic movement of an ensemble of masked footballers, while the mannequins intermittently wheeled onstage, 1970s Leeds players’ names emblazoned across their backs, succinctly communicate the team’s sullen, uncooperative attitude towards their new boss. And there is clever use of back projection, with images and archive footage of Clough’s nemesis – Leeds’ long-time former manager Don Revie, his large presence hovering over the action like a dark cloud.

• At West Yorkshire Playhouse until April 2.