Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs

David Halliwell
Octagon, Bolton

The Octagon's artistic director Mark Babych has revived this 1964 play, written by young RADA graduate David Halliwell, in its fortieth anniversary year, and on the fifth anniversary of its famous London revival starring Ewan McGregor. It is apparently based on an incident when Halliwell was expelled from art school, but in his case his parents persuaded the Principal to take him back the following week. Malcolm Scrawdyke - the "Little Malcolm" of the title - does not go back; instead he sets up with his friends his own political party, the Dynamic Erection Party, whose only policies are absolute power and to exact revenge on the Principal of Huddersfield Tech for expelling him.

For most of the play, the plans and rituals of the party, from the silly pseudo-Nazi salute and flag to the plot to steal a painting and kidnap the Principal, are put over in a series of very funny comedic set pieces. However the play turns very dark towards the end, just as in Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, as the ridiculous leader character starts to wield his power over others with some chilling results (the programme reminds us, in case we miss the link, that Hitler was treated as a joke by his contemporaries in his early days in politics). It becomes a study of how a charismatic person can persuade others to do things that in other circumstances they would consider impractical (the plot to steal a painting and kidnap the Principal), immoral (the trial of Nipple in which all the "facts" were invented) or even horrific (an act of extreme violence towards the end).

This excellent cast portrayed these broad but well-drawn characters perfectly. Paul Simpson as Malcolm managed to combine all of the varied aspects of this character - the bored, disaffected student, the charismatic friend that others look up to, the sinister, fascistic dictator, the young man who goes to pieces in front of a girl he likes - in a convincing way.

Irwin (William Ash) is the nervous and indecisive one who is unable to string a sentence together; he is also the most intelligent, and he admits later that he knew the plans were all impractical but he did not have the confidence to say so.

Wick (Graeme Hawley) is the talented artist who goes along with Malcolm's schemes with the most enthusiasm but is the most bitter at the end when they fail and he has lost everything.

Nipple, in Jeff Hordley's very funny portrayal, is a ridiculous character that the others all laugh at, particularly at his ambitions to be a writer, but he becomes the first victim of the group's display of its power when he is ejected from the party and his life is threatened in a show trial in which all the "evidence" is blatantly fabricated.

Each of these characters has a number of solo set pieces and some group routines that are very well executed and often very funny. Samantha Power as the object of Malcolm's desire, Ann, does not appear on stage until nearly ten o'clock, but she manages to make a mark with her brief appearance in this talented cast. The whole play is set, in Patrick Connellan's design, in a large but dirty single-room flat where Malcolm lives.

This is a long play and dupes the audience for about the first couple of hours into thinking that it is a knockabout comedy. It then turns unexpectedly towards the end into something more serious and sinister containing some scenes that are quite unpleasant to watch. The pace also slows towards the end, which may cause spectators' attention to wander after they have sat for so long in a very warm theatre, but the ending is important to turn a comedy about student antics into something more profound. This is an excellent production of a fascinating play that has probably never lost its contemporary relevance at any point during its forty-year history.

"Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs" runs until 21st February 2004

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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