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Review: The Damned United at the Unity Theatre ****

Brian Clough’s ill-fated tenure in charge of Leeds United was short, but anything but sweet.

The football manager’s 44-day struggle at Elland Road is the subject of this feisty new adaptation of David Peace’s novel The Damned Utd (previously filmed with Michael Sheen in the leading role), here given a stage makeover by Anders Lustgarten whose Lampedusa made such an impression at the Unity in 2015.

And Red Ladder Theatre Company has joined forces with the Unity to present Lustgarten’s work, which heads to Edinburgh from here.

Peace’s original novel was a fiction based on a mixture of fact, rumour and flights of fancy. What the late footballer-turned-manager would have thought about it we’ll never know. But it certainly makes for entertaining viewing from the theatrical terraces.

The structure of the hour-long production follows Peace’s book, with Clough’s month-and-a-bit disaster at Leeds juxtaposed with his rise to management fame following a devastating injury on the field as a player, and his glory days in charge of Derby County.

It’s at Derby that he develops a deep, all-consuming dislike for Leeds’ boss Don Revie and his ‘dirty’ tactics, while at the same time developing an all-consuming belief in his own abilities as a leader of men.

Brian Clough (Luke Dickson) and Peter Taylor (David Chafer). Credit: Red Ladder

 

The yo yo-ing backwards and forwards could become confusing, but it’s signposted on a corrugated plastic screen (part of designer Nina Dunn’s sparse but clever set), and by – during the Derby days – the presence of Clough’s management sidekick Peter Taylor, portrayed here by David Chafer as a fondly exasperated Robin to Clough’s bombastic Batman.

Luke Dickson’s Clough is a man of high emotion, hiding his fears behind a blustering exterior, but whose bluff swagger and straight-talking management style gets results, at Derby at least.

Jamie Smelt completes the three-man ‘squad’ playing a host of peripheral roles, mostly annoyed club directors in scarfs and big coats or bullied backroom boys.

We all know the outcome of his career at Leeds. But knowing the end of the story certainly doesn’t spoil its telling. The Damned United is a fascinating, if fictional, psychological study of one of sport’s most complex, charismatic and infuriating characters.

They don’t make them like that any more.

Director Rod Dixon keeps the pace pulsing along towards the inevitable, while the locker-room language gets distinctly riper as the show progresses.

You can catch The Damned United at Edinburgh's Pleasance Courtyard from August 2-28.