Marching On Together: Red Ladder and WYP’s The Damned United

The famous blue and yellow of Leeds United has become somewhat synonymous with locally based Red Ladder of late for their co-production of The Damned United with the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Nevertheless, I was intrigued to see if Director Rod Dixon could transform David Peace’s bestselling book into another piece of theatre which would be cherished by both sports fans and theatre enthusiasts alike.

Using just a three man cast, the play presents a fictional insight into the behind scenes events surrounding the strident Brian Clough’s woeful stint as Manager of the Elland Road club. Whilst it’s his short spell in West Yorkshire that is at the play’s epicentre, there’s also considerable focus on Clough’s relationship with his long-time assistant, Peter Taylor, intertwining flashbacks from their time together elsewhere. It’s the second time Red Ladder has brought the novel to the stage with this new production a reworking of its predecessor.

I was most impressed with the production’s scenography and how the different aspects function cohesively to create compelling atmospheres throughout. Upon the audience entering, for example, Nina Dunn’s minimalistic set of little more than two small tables and two hollow columns is irradiated by Tim Skelly’s bleak, blue lighting. The columns, seemingly representing changing room lockers, have a metallic aesthetic and thus combine cleverly with Skelly’s lights to create a cold vibe from the outset – one which is too created through Clough’s austere attitude. Also highly commendable is the characters’ addressing of audience members as players which provides intimacy and a glimpse into what it was like to work under Clough and Taylor.

Unlike the crest worn by Clough’s more recent successors, however, it’s difficult to claim the production is completely rosy due to Dixon’s failure to consistently establish the timings of conversations. Exacerbated by the use of Jamie Smelt in a multi-role capacity, this meant audience were sometimes left bewildered by how scenes linked to one another. I, personally, found the sound volume to be rather excessive too.

In terms of the cast, Luke Dickson’s Clough is layered astutely, underpinning a self-assured façade with a vulnerability that becomes increasingly evident as the pressure mounts. For the majority, his take has a distinctly greater physical presence than the one held by the man himself, offering a more visually authoritative character although despite such positives, his intonation too often lacks charisma. Clough aside, David Chafer is quite brilliant as Peter Taylor, portraying his character’s breakdown in relation to Clough superbly, and Jamie Smelt executes his numerous roles well also.

For football fans especially, this is a very enjoyable spectacle. It illustrates Clough’s demise is a story which anybody in any career could experience. With its flaws, however, it’s difficult to say Dixon’s the best Director in the business, or even in ‘the top one’, but go back to 1974, and he’d certainly be First Division.

The Damned United runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 7th April before embarking on a local tour.

Luke Prowse Baldwin

(Image courtesy of the West Yorkshire Playhouse)