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LITTLE MALCOLM AND HIS STRUGGLE AGAINST THE EUNUCHS – Southwark Playhouse, London.

wpidIt’s easy to get the wrong idea about Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs. Its title for a start is too wordy and wacky, like it’s crying out for attention. When you find out that it’s the story of a quasi-Hitlerian figure who starts a political movement called the Party of the Dynamic Erection, that it has a character called Nipple and that it lasts nearly three hours, you could be forgiven for thinking it will be a gruelling evening at the theatre. You go in with the image of some relic of the ‘60s: flat, didactic and pleased with itself, hammering its points home like a second-rate Brecht who’s relocated to Huddersfield.

So I’m surprised and glad to report that it’s much, much better than that. Coming to the Southwark Playhouse 50 years after its first production (which was also Mike Leigh’s directorial debut) and over 15 years since the last London production, it reveals itself to be a play of unusual power, a piece vividly of its own time but with huge resonances for the contemporary world.

When it starts we find Malcolm Scrawdyke, art school dropout and bedsit Napoleon, on New Year’s Day in Huddersfield, freezing cold and without a shilling for the meter. Nursing a festering resentment brought on by a slight from his Drawing Master, as well as a more long standing hatred of women in general. He is now plotting revenge and, with the help of three acolytes, this escalates quickly to full-scale revolution. They found a political movement, complete with its own greeting (“Hail, Scrawdyke!”) and legal system, with few goals but to gain power and  to fight against all the “eunuchs” who oppose them. Though lacking in resources, members and morality, they have no shortage of ambition (“Hitler started with seven”). They see their fast approaching putsch as the necessary start of regime change that will sweep the Dynamic Erectionists to power.

In concrete terms, for most of the play not much happens: most of the action takes place in vividly imagined fantasies or else in rambling monologues. Yet nothing here feels extraneous. The work seems to have an internal logic that compels you even if you don’t understand quite why. Halliwell seems to know this world inside out and as much as the characters can be objects of our pity or our contempt, he never fails to extend his sympathy: even at their worst, he understands what motivates each of them, never allowing them to become merely functional.

While it’s an outstanding play, Clive Judd’s production matches the challenge set down for it with energy and verve. Malcolm is a tricky role, requiring whoever plays him to be both genuinely charismatic and profoundly vulnerable. Daniel Easton plays him skilfully. The moment towards the end of the play when reality, in the form of a woman, intrudes on his fantasies, we see him switch from demagogue to stuttering adolescent and on to wordless aggression, in a way that feels coherent, believable and genuinely shocking.

Three hour plays set in dank bedsits are never going to be an easy sell, but I really hope this finds an audience. It really deserves to. This isn’t just one of the most exciting revivals of recent years, it’s smart, incredibly funny and deeply provocative – it’s undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve seen anywhere this year.

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Reviewed 10/07/15

By Robbie Lumsden
@robbielumsden

8th July – 1st August 2015
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD.

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