War and Peace as The Damned United plays out Clough’s hatred of Dirty Leeds

Not having a ball: Luke Dickson as embittered, embattled Leeds United manager Brian Clough in Red Ladder Theatre Company’s The Damned United

THERE is much hatred and not a whole lotta love in The Damned United, but nevertheless the story of Brian Clough’s splenetic 44 days as champions Leeds United’s manager in 1974 forms part of The Love Season at York Theatre Royal.

Why so? The truth, as explained by chief executive Tom Bird, is that Rod Dixon’s touring production for Red Ladder Theatre Company was booked in already when the reopening season’s theme took shape.

Enfant terrible Clough despised Don Revie’s “Dirty Leeds” and the feeling was mutual, drawing Dewsbury-born author David Peace to construct a psychodrama inside the life of Brian’s head: the biographical novel The Damned Utd, published in 2006.

Tom Hopper’s film, starring Michael Sheen, ensued in 2009 under the title The Damned United, and Leeds company Red Ladder have since presented various stage manifestations of Anders Lustgarten’s darkly humorous adaptation, built around the double act of Clough and father figure/assistant Peter Taylor.

Heading deep into the tortured mind of a flawed genius, slamming up against his limits, The Damned United brings to life the beauty and brutality of football, the working man’s ballet, in a story of sweat and booze, fury and power struggles. 

The performing rights were donated by Peace to Red Ladder for all of £3.68 – a penny for each page in the novel – as a show of support for the Leeds company when it suffered a 100 per cent cut to Arts Council funding.

Red Ladder artistic director Rod Dixon says: “As a story, The Damned United has it all – passion, power struggles, tragedy and a classic anti-hero in Clough – which lends itself brilliantly to theatre.

The book cover to David Peace’s The Damned Utd

“Anders’ adaptation captures the grit, poetry and darkness of David Peace’s writing, and by charting the fall of Brian Clough and exposing what made ‘Old Big ’Ea’ tick, audiences are given a fascinating insight into the troubled but brilliant mind of a flawed genius – who, to this day, remains one of the most controversial figures in sporting history.”

As Leeds actor Luke Dickson’s Clough and David Chafer’s Taylor head to York next Wednesday, joined by the multi role-playing Jamie Smelt, here comes a tale of War and Peace: a Q&A with author David Peace.

How did this stage adaptation of The Damned United come about?

“The original idea came up one afternoon in the Maypole pub in Ossett, back in the summer of 2014. When Red Ladder lost their Arts Council funding, the project became a bit more concrete and urgent.” 

How closely do you feel Anders Lustgarten’s stage adaptation of The Damned United captures your novel?

“Anders keeps the essential atmosphere and mood of the book, and obviously the plot itself, but he’s also made it something else, something new and something more, and which is what any great adaptation does.”

Double act: David Chafer’s Peter Taylor and Luke Dickson’s Brian Clough in The Damned United

What did you take from watching The Damned United as a stage play?

“More than anything else, for me, it was just a wonderful, humbling and exciting experience to see the original 2016 production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse [now Leeds Playhouse], to see what so many talented people had brought to the work, and then how much the audience loved and appreciated it.”

Are there things that a theatre adaptation can do that a novel or film cannot?

“Very much so, and particularly in this case; football itself, at every level, is drama, theatre and spectacle played out before a living, breathing and usually very partisan audience. This is what I feel Anders, Rod and everybody involved brought to the story which neither the original book nor the film could do.”

What makes Brian Clough such a compelling figure?

“I think we simply recognise him, in ourselves, as human beings, with all his complexities and foibles, his good side and his bad, his triumphs and his defeats.”

Why do you think The Damned United holds so much appeal with non-football audiences as it does fans of the beautiful game? 

“Well, though few of us will sadly ever win the league or the European Cup, I think many of us have found ourselves in a new job with folk who were less than welcoming, and then perhaps not handled the situation as best we might. And then there’s always the mystery: why did Brian Clough put himself in that situation; ,why do we put ourselves in these situations?”

Red Ladder Theatre Company in The Damned United, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, June 16, kick-off at 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.