Thursday 23 July 2015

Theatre review: Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs

January 1st 1965, and Malcolm Scrawdyke (Daniel Easton) is stuck in his freezing Huddersfield bedsit, having just been kicked out of art school. Feeling persecuted by the world and especially the Headmaster of his former college, he plots to get some control back by forming his own political party-cum-terrorist cell called Dynamic Erection. Clive Judd revives David Halliwell's political satire Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs for its 50th anniversary and presents it as a tragicomic, prescient look at extreme, angry and ultimately hollow student activism. Malcolm recruits his art school friends Wick (Laurie Jamieson) and Irwin (Barney McElholm,) persuading them to quit their own courses. First on the list is a heist on a local art gallery, followed by the kidnap of the hated Headmaster. They're convinced power will follow, but don't have any plans of what to do with it.

In fact most of their time is spent in the week leading up to the big heist, play-acting and running through what'll happen; but when the time comes, will they be able to go out into the snow and get on with it?

There's been a lot of positive buzz about the show, but it's also been no secret that it runs at almost three hours with an 8pm start time. So perhaps weekend performances are busier but this Thursday night show was less than half full. It means that although the quality and commitment of the performances remain obvious, the atmosphere of the comic setpieces in the first act is never as electric as it might have been with a bigger crowd.

Dynamic Erection were never the same after Zayn left

After a number of supporting roles at the RSC, Easton makes a strong move to the lead as Malcolm, transitioning him smoothly from the comedy of the first act to the darker moments of the second, the angry and ineffectual student becoming a mini-Soviet dictator, even holding a show-trial against party member Nipple (Scott Arthur.) He's abusing his power before he actually has any, but the not-so-subtle subtext of his calling his party Dynamic Erection, and his enemies Eunuchs, is exposed by the woman he fancies but is too nervous to talk to: When Ann (a nicely steely Rochenda Sandall) actually turns up at his flat Malcolm's insecurities are laid open and things take an even nastier turn.

I can't fault the cast - they're particularly up against it in an already-warm theatre, having to spend the whole show running around in heavy coats - but although apparently Judd has done some trimming to the text, I think it could have done with a bit more. Just under three hours is a hefty time to be spending with a handful of characters in their small room, and I would have preferred some of the earlier dialogue - which does get repetitive - to have been sacrificed. Especially as there's great work going on from Easton, Sandall and McElholm in the final few scenes, which would be better-served in front of a less worn-out audience. For the most part Halliwell's play has stayed pretty fresh, but in certain overwritten moments it does show its age.

Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs by David Halliwell is booking until the 1st of August at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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