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Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (Southwark Playhouse)

Clive Judd directs this 50th anniversary production, the first revival of David Halliwell's comedy in over a decade

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cast of Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs
© Tom Scurr

Malcolm Scrawdyke is 50 years old. He hasn't aged a bit. David Halliwell's student dictator, railing and raving in his freezing Huddersfield bedsit, is one of the most enduring characters in theatre, right up there with ‘Rooster' Byron. Like Jez Butterworth's gyspy king, he's a charismatic outcast, a commander of the English language and a myth of his own making. It is a power surge of a part.

Expelled from art school, an indignant young Scrawdyke plots his revenge on the principal. He's almost a spoof of the angry young men that dominated British theatre a decade earlier and, intent on proving his superiority, Scrawdyke enlists three peers – Wick, Irwin and his dufflecoated rival Dennis Nipple – into a new political party, the Party of Dynamic Erection. They raise red printed banners on the walls – the hammer and sickle swapped for a rigid cock and balls – and raise their hands in a wolf's claw salute: "Hail Scrawdyke."

Of course, it's all front. Alone, Malcolm's rife with insecurities – about women, about his art and about his place in the world. These boys play at revolution, acting out art theft and kidnappings from the safety of Malcolm's studio. The sum total of their effect on the world is zero. Far easier to shut oneself away, to see the world through your window or through art. Jemima Robinson's design chalks a Lowry-like Huddersfield on the flat's walls.

It's an extraordinary play, well overdue a revival (the last was in 1999, with Ewan McGregor as Malcolm) and, in its fictive layers and significant enactments, there are echoes of Enda Walsh's plays. A reminder too of theatre's duty to entertain. Even if Halliwell's writing gets carried away with its own brilliance, these are idiosyncratic imbeciles given trickshot gags and dialogue as dense and thorny as a thicket of brambles. It's not an easy play to pull off, but Clive Judd's rat-a-tat production hits the right rhythm – clipped, quickfire and Northern – and manages the momentum of a runaway train. It adds nothing new, but it hardly needs to.

What makes Little Malcolm so watchable is its pull in two directions at once: the grand sweep of the political epic and the petty inconsequence of the student bedsit. It's Downfall played out by the Young Ones.

Malcolm himself is both admirable and risible too. The naïve idealism that would tear down the system and erect something else is just that – naïve idealism – and Daniel Easton lets us see the scared kid beneath the swaggering leader. For all his talk of imagination and will, he knows he lacks the later. This is a man that has to steel himself just to get out of bed; a boy too terrified of women to make any sort of move on Anne (Rochenda Sandall). His colleagues – Laurie Jamieson's pent-up Wick, Barney McElholm's wet-fish Irwin and Scott Arthur's hilarious pseudo Nipple – are blind to all that, until the very end, which makes all the laughter dry in your throat.

The upshot is that conformity awaits – and that's what makes Scrawdyke so relevant today; less for his fascism (Easton downplays the Hitler within), more for his hollow radicalism. Conformity – the eunarchy – will win out in the end – a depressing and daunting thought.

Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 1 August. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

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