The Damned United at York Theatre Royal Review

Red Ladder’s production of The Damned United has a one night only showing at York Theatre Royal, and what a night it was.

I’ll start with the truth: I don’t know a lot about football, and I don’t know who Brian Clough is. But I do now and that’s the only thing that matters. The fact the show is so accessible for anyone to enjoy, football fan or not, is a real credit to the creative team.

The Damned United is based on David Peace’s book, adapted for the stage by Anders Lustgarte and directed by Rod Dixon. In just over an hour, it documents Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 days as Leeds United manager. The show beautifully intersects the ‘here and now’ with Cloughie’s more successful time as manager of Derby County. The end of something good signals the start of something bad – and this play perfectly brings both ends of the spectrum together in a whirlwind 65 minutes.

It’s difficult to create a show like this without it becoming overly expositional or monologue-filled, but the fantastic direction from Rod Dixon and the show’s staging is innovative and sparky enough to break the mould. Projected silhouettes of additional cast members playing roles such as the football team gives an extra dimension and draws you into the story.

Luke Dickson embodies Brian Clough brilliantly. I had no preconception of who Brian Clough is or what he should sound like – so to me Dickson is playing a character while to my theatre buddy (who knows football a lot better than me) he simply is Cloughie. Honest, brave, heated, vulnerable, honourable, likeable. It’s important to understand why Clough failed so miserably at Leeds United, but it’s important the audience empathises with him too and Dickson strikes the balance perfectly.

David Chafer as Peter Taylor adds a softness to the piece, an anti-dote to the blazing Dickson. Jamie Smelt plays multiple roles throughout, really adding gravitas and playing each different character brilliantly.

I cannot express how much people will enjoy this show. It doesn’t matter if you like football, or if you’re from Yorkshire. It’s a genuinely great play that documents a particularly interesting piece of history that continues to be embedded in football culture today. Don’t miss it.

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