This was the first time my wife and I had been to Cluntergate Community Centre (CCC) since it was extensively renovated. The last time we were there, we were performing, together. We did ‘Welcome To The Mad’, our joint performance about how we met, with prose, poetry, and photographs. That was part of Wakefield Litfest 2017.
The Damned United is a play, based on the novel of the same name, by David Peace. This has already been adapted for cinema (2009). David Peace comes from Ossett, which is next to Horbury. I spoke to him at Huddersfield Literature Festival in 2011. This production is by Red Ladder, the same company that produced Sex And Docks And Rock ‘n’ Roll, which I have also reviewed.
This was a homegrown, intimate production: a play about my football team; staged at my local community centre; by a theatre company run by people I am acquainted with; based on a novel by an internationally acclaimed, local writer. The big room at CCC has a stage, but Red Ladder didn’t use it. The actors were at the same level as the audience, only a few feet away from the front row of seating. During the scenes when Brian Clough is berating players in the dressing room, members of the audience are picked on as if they are players. It just so happened that, when the player in question was Billy Bremner, Clough addressed him as ‘William’, and he was pointing at me.
The staging was minimal, but ingenious and engaging, at the same time. Apart from a 1970s chair, two occasional tables, a phone with a curly cord, a bottle of Bushmills, and a glass, the staging included several tall, narrow storage units made of galvanised wire mesh. One of these held a hand-axe. The dominant feature was a giant screen, at the back, which seemed to be made of the corrugated plastic that is used to keep rain off driveways. The images projected onto this were synchronised with the action and the dialogue. Most of them were in monochrome, and sinister. Members of the Leeds United team were identified by having their names, in white, on their jerseys. The fact that they names were always visible indicated that they were facing away when Clough was talking or shouting.
The screen is also used to convey text. Some of the scenes are preceded by which day of Clough’s 44-day tenure at Leeds is about to be examined. This is one of those plays where, like a Greek tragedy, the audience already knows how it is going to end, but that only increases the tension and drama.
This version of the adaptation has five characters, but only three actors. I cannot find their names: this production has a different cast from the one at Leeds Playhouse. One actor plays Brian Clough, another plays Peter Taylor, and the third plays Sam Longson (chairman of Derby County), Manny Cussins (chairman of Leeds United), and a coach, called Sidney. The projection screen serves another purpose in keeping the actors out of sight while they are picking up or discarding props, or changing costumes. The degree to which the same actor, with minimal time for changing, managed to project three different personas, was remarkable.
For those who are not familiar with the story, this is not a play about football. Football is the background, but not the story. The story is about hubris, obsession, envy, love, and betrayal. It is also a powerful portrayal of the 1970s, when football players ate steak and chips, and the managers of top clubs had sometimes grown up in households that didn’t have a refrigerator.
Apart from the imaginative staging and consistently convincing acting, another excellent feature of this production is its length: it is a single act, lasting 65 minutes. It delivers a more concentrated version of the story than either the book or the film.
The tour continues until 31 December 2018. Highly recommended.