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Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs
Halliwell's Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs was first performed
in 1965, directed by Mike Leigh and with Halliwell in the title role. It was
produced both in the West End and on Broadway and remains, arguably, the author's most
successful work. Halliwell won the Evening Standard's Most Promising
Playwright award in 1967. While he remains a prolific writer, notably of radio plays
for the BBC, nothing he has done since has attracted the same degree of attention or
Malcolm Scrawdyke, expelled from his Huddersfield art college, persuades fellow students Ingham, Wick and Nipple to join him in forming the Party of Dynamic Erection. Confident that the youth of the nation will rush to join them, their only worry, as expressed by Ingham, is whether they will have enough chairs. Their first revolutionary act will be to humiliate the college's principal. Meanwhile, Scrawdyke agonizes over his complete failure to attract the attention of fellow student, Ann.
The first Act comprises a series of brilliantly funny set pieces during which the students plan their attack. The production resolutely concentrates on the comic aspects of this while playing down some of their relish in the violence. Little Malcolm was, originally, perhaps a more frightening play than it now appears. But no matter - the sight of Scrawdyke and Wick dancing together, quite unselfconsciously, to Gerry Mulligan, while discussing their revolutionary aims, is priceless.
The play becomes grimmer after the interval when the conspirators decide that Nipple is a spy and he is tried and expelled from the party. The absurd humor of the 'trial' curdles when it becomes obvious that Nipple is only guilty of failing to fit in with the others' ideas of how they should be. But, while being more obviously awkward and self-deceiving than his cohorts, he is also more sincere. When he leaves, his sense of being betrayed by people whom he felt proud to know is genuinely moving.
Things grow even darker with the belated appearance of Ann who, more than anyone, ultimately falls victim to Scrawdyke's inadequacy and desperate thirst for some kind of power. Scrawdyke's life, we soon learn, has been all about planning the great things he will never do. He has gathered this bunch of losers around him to shore up his hopelessly fragile self esteem and yet, ultimately, even they are stronger and more realistic than he is. In the end, he is left alone, still planning one hopeless act - perhaps out of genuine remorse, more likely in a last desperate attempt to hold onto some fragment of his great plans.
The play is, in many ways, a period piece with its timely warning of how revolutionary ideals often stem from baser, selfish motives and can soon shade into fascism. It can be no accident that its student revolutionaries display, apparently unconscious, admiration for Hitler's organizational abilities. The success of Denis Lawson's production at the Hampstead Theatre lies in his decision to play up the comic aspects of the piece. The audience never imagines for a minute that Malcolm Scrawdyke and his ragged band of followers will succeed in their aims. Instead, Lawson concentrates on the motives behind Scrawdyke's apparent thirst for political change which boil down to little more than his own sense of inadequacy - an area still worthy of exploration in today's ever increasingly cynical political climate.
The casting of Ewan McGregor as a pathetic, self deluding loser, incapable of attracting any woman, is a bold decision. It works to his advantage in some scenes - it is easy to believe, for example, that, despite everything, Ann still finds Scrawdyke attractive - but also serves to make the character rather more likable than, perhaps, it should be. He compensates with some brilliant comic playing - his attempts to commit suicide by smothering himself with a pillow or swallowing a plank of wood are hysterically funny. Nicolas Tennant, Joe Duttine and Sean Gilder, as his ragged cohorts, match him both verbally and physically. Rob Howell's masterfully designed attic studio looks so convincingly chilly that the audience seemed, at times, to be shivering along with the actors.
Little Malcom is a very enjoyable evening. If the play has lost much of its power to disturb, it remains tremendously entertaining. After more than thirty years, its portrait of repressed, confused youth remains convincing. Halliwell enjoys the comedy of a group of people whose whole universe is a small northern town - and whose world view rarely extends beyond the confines of four walls - but resists the temptation to caricature. He retains our sympathy for this group of misfits and leaves the audience thoughtful as well amused. The play sits happily alongside works by contemporaries such as Joe Orton and John Osborne and is as worthy of being seen again by as wide an audience as possible.
- Mark Jennett
London: Comedy Theatre (closed)