The Damned United review: An important piece of Leeds footballing history on stage

Brian Clough’s 1974 ill-fated managerial tenure at Leeds United has been turned into a book, a film and most recently a stage play. This week, I had the pleasure of seeing the show in person at Leeds Playhouse.

After recently speaking to Red Ladder Theatre Company producer, Chris Lloyd and Luke Dickson, the actor playing Clough, I was looking forward to seeing how the team had crafted the Damned United for the 2021 run.  

As this was the first visit to a theatre post lockdown, I was a little apprehensive about how things would be managed. It turned out to be straightforward and clear – the seating was also well marked out, with plenty of space between households. The theatre staff advised everyone to wear masks throughout the show, which wasn’t ideal – but it was a small price to pay to keep everyone safe and enjoy the show. 

The play itself started just after 7:45pm. I was intrigued by the limited set and even fewer props on the stage. The show itself started with period footage shown across the corrugated plastic backdrop, which I thought was a really clever way to set the scene. I particularly liked that much of the footage was authentic from the 70’s period in which the play was set.

I enjoyed the artsy feel of the show, and although it’s a play about football, I soon realised that it was really much more than that. The Red Ladder team have crafted a play that is true to Clough, a complex man, driven to succeed at almost any cost. Whilst it is probably best suited to football fans, you certainly don’t have to be a football expert to enjoy this play as you’ll still enjoy the story and will likely get sucked into the complex personalities and personal dramas depicted in The Damned United.

The scenes moved between Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s time at Derby United, where they spent six triumphant years and were adored by the fans, to their present positions at Leeds. Although it was sometimes hard to follow the switch between Derby and Leeds, I managed to capture the gist of the story through the vibe that was captured by the actors and the clever use of footage and sound. I was also glad that I had already read about the history of Brian Clough’s 44 days at Leeds United as it gave me a background knowledge that enabled me to understand what was going on.  

Throughout the show, just as Chris and Luke told me in their interview the week before, Clough’s battles whilst at Leeds were summarised in a series of cleverly crafted scenes. I found it interesting to see how many of the battles that were included in the show were of Clough’s own making, where he was struggling against the Leeds United Chairman, the way the game was being played, and even against his assistant manager and best friend, Peter Taylor. The cast managed to capture the complexity of Clough, a man was also clearly struggling with a dependency on whisky, which was symbolised by the ever present bottle on the stage. 

There were only three actors cast for this production, with their characters enhanced through the use of videos and voice overs. All four of the actors held their own, helping to tell the complex story of Clough’s rise and fall as football manager at Derby County and then at Leeds United. Luke Dickson was particularly strong and managed to capture Clough’s attributes really well – painting a portrait of a driven, passionate but complex man who was striving to make a name for himself and improve on the successes of Don Revie (Leeds United previous manager). Luke took the audience inside Clough’s tortured mind, whilst also showing his softer side, for instance when he broke down in tears following the news about his mother’s death. 

Whether the play is a completely true reflection of the actual events or not, the cast have created a show that is sure to embalm the story of Clough for years to come. I would recommend others to take the time to watch this incredibly interesting play. The Damned United will be on tour until the end of July. The next performance will be at York Royal Theatre on June 16th.

Photographs provided by Faye Dawson PR.

Leeds Living