Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Damned Utd – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 11/03/16]

To pick up where Michael leaves off: “It’s a good evening, but one, I suspect, for the fans.”

Well, it’s safe to say I’m not a fan. Not of football, at any rate. But reducing what The Damned Utd is about to “football” is a bit like suggesting that Coriolanus doesn’t really have much appeal to anyone beyond fans of C5th B.C. Roman politics.

[That said, I went the night after press night, and the initial most striking things about Friday night’s performance of The Damned Utd. were a) that the thing was pretty much sold out, and b) that there were more men in the theatre than I have ever seen in my life. And men it’s fair to say that I haven’t seen so many of in theatres, full-stop.

Now, No, I know that “white men” are, in theory, hardly a poorly served demographic. These are apparently the guys with all the power and money that everything’s for. Well, possibly not these men, and not theatre, so often. And it felt genuinely nice to be at something that felt so welcoming and inclusive to this non-traditional audience. I mean, if we’re serious about theatres being for “everyone”, and we accept that – really – “everyone” is not interested in the same things, then it’s at least salutary to see that there’s nothing off-putting about “theatre” itself, when the subject is of interest. And, when the subject is this well-handled, “theatre” itself is hardly losing out. Indeed, people who might think there’s nothing in this for them (i.e. me) would be well-advised to go anyway.]

In fact, Coriolanus is pretty much the tragic trajectory also followed here. I’ve not read the David Peace novel (or any of his others, despite fully intending to; along with all those Karl Ove Knausgaard books). Nor have I seen the film (eviscerated by Mark Fisher [not the theatre critic one] in his book Ghosts of My Life: “Hooper and Morgan didn’t adapt Peace; they eliminated him.”).  It is nonetheless fascinating to note where the parameters of the story are set. Anders Lustgarten’s adaptation does a much better job of honouring “Peace’s fractured and abrasive modernism” (Fisher). The story essentially cuts back and forth between Brian Clough’s time at Derby County, where he did very well, and Leeds Utd, where his stint as manager lasted 44 days. The novel/play then stops. Apparently – according to a bloke overheard by me on the way out – Clough subsequently went on to have a long and sporadically illustrious career at Nottingham Forest where the team topped the league, won the European Cup, and generally accomplished all the stuff that makes football teams happy.

As such, it’s key that the novel just dwells on the absolute low point. It also completely cuts out the year or so spent at Brighton and Hove between the time at Derby and the time at Leeds. Again, like Shakespeare, you’re not really here for undiluted facts. If, at times, it might seem like there are a lot of facts, and stats, and information about matches won and lost; really it’s the rhythm of the writing and its masterful delivery by Andrew Lancel (him off of Cardiac Arrest) as Clough that resonates here.

This isn’t a play about football, it’s a half-tragedy about hubris, arrogance and vanity, while at the same time being apparently, ostensibly in the right. Leeds under their previous manager, Don Revie, are envisioned by Clough, fairly or unfairly, as completely corrupt. Referees bribed, fouls committed, dives taken. He takes the job as manager precisely because of his contempt, it seems. And because of his self-belief. Because his time at Derby and his time at Leeds are both run largely concurrently, his fall from grace at the former also coincides with his much faster dismissal from the latter. And his mother dies. I daresay I was the only person in the theatre who didn’t know the story, but it’s a bloody good one, and one well told here. Yes, the football details might as well have been being reported in a language I don’t speak, but since I’m on record advocating for watching plays in languages we don’t understand, I didn’t have the slightest problem with that. Urgency and tone communicated everything.

So, that’s The-Play-as-script. As a production, Rod Dixon’s première for this Red Ladder/WYP/Derby Playhouse co-pro. is a fascinating, mixed beast. Signe “There Has Possibly Been An Incident” Beckman’s design is blank, black and monolithic. Boxy. A bunch of gauze panels make up the walls of the set. The play opens with a painted line describing the playing area being picked out in light, until a bloke comes on and completes it with one of those pitch-painting thingies. At a couple of points a big boardroom table is lowered from the ceiling. It’s coldly effective, and almost, ahem, German in its rejection of the obvious. (The obvious in this instance surely being a cavalcade of brown and beige wallpapers evoking Britain’s nicotine-strained brutalism-and-broken-biscuits past.)

Similarly (in a way), the majority of the stage time is, as you might expect, Lancel-as-Clough narrating himself, chatting to people in scenes as they become relevant, and dialoguing with his indefatigable mate Peter Taylor (Tony Bell). And it pretty much works excellently. There’s also some thrown-in nineties “physical theatre” of the “throwing demonstrative football shapes” school, which, frankly, I could have lived without and so could the production. Similarly, the wheeling on of shop-window dummies as the teams felt like it fell between two aesthetic stools in this version (i.e. I think there are at least two wildly different ways to make it work – although maybe not with this set – but this wasn’t either of them).

But, yes. To get back to the main event: overall this felt like a more-than-decent stab at adapting what must be almost insurmountable source material, and a damn good night out, not least for a lot of people who seem to generally feel excluded by theatre.

“Fans only?” Definitely not.

1 comment:

Rod Dixon said...

Thanks Andrew - this is a very useful review- and by useful I mean it takes the conversation about many theatre issues beyond the production. This is what I believe theatre is for, provoking conversation (it's a drum I bang all day and it bores my mates to death!). I wish reviewers would review the work in relation to audience engagement and response. But the tradition is to critique the work in isolation (as an expert analysis). I don't resist this, and I understand when reviewers dislike the work and expose its weaknesses. But when the work is clearly striking a cord with its target audience that itself is a useful conversation - ie why? I am puzzled most of the time as to why some audiences engage with work and others don't. The next question for West Yorkshire Playhouse is this: how do they bring those 'blokes' back in to see something a bit further away from their comfort zone? I think we ask a bit more from the blokes by the way by representing football with dancers - and that is one reason the movement is there ... More to talk about.