TNC ARCHIVE 2015: Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs - "Unlike Wick, Irwin, and Nipple, Malcolm seems much more alone and isolated, and having lost his only outside source of interaction, he has now become a prisoner of sorts in his tiny, cold bedsit."
13th July, 2015
David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (hereafter Little Malcolm) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a much-overdue revival. By the end of the first act, I was convinced I had been privy to something rather mad, incredibly inventive, brutally honest, and unbelievably essential. As the company took their bow at the end, I was convinced I had seen a revival of one of the most salient pieces of theatre to come back to the London stage in the past few years.
Based in part on Halliwell’s own experiences at art school in the 1950s before moving to acting at RADA, Little Malcolm is unashamedly rooted in those experiences and feelings the playwright had encountered. His anger and pain, the confusion, and his supposed powerlessness are infused in every word that is uttered, and the audience is drawn in by Halliwell’s incredible use of language.
Malcolm Strawdyke, Daniel Easton, recently excluded from the Huddersfield Art School, is finding it hard to get himself up out of bed on this cold January 1st, but once on his feet, Malcolm becomes determined to get his revenge on the detestable head of the art school, Mr. Allard. To do this, he enlists the help of three of his fellow students: Irwin, Barney McElholm, Wick, Laurie Jamieson, and Nipple, Scott Arthur, whom he also encourages to drop out to join the fight.
Strawdyke’s plan is simple enough: kidnap Mr. Allard and blackmail him with the knowledge he has about an assignment Mr. Allard recently had. It’s a struggle at first, but Strawdyke manages to convince Wick and Irwin, but Nipple, the writer of the party, takes a little more convincing and is soon a fully fledged member of the "Dynamic Erection Party." But as the date of Mr. Allard’s kidnapping nears, cracks begin to form.
There’s something contemporary about the struggle between Little Malcolm and his band of men at the Art School that a lot of current students might relate to. But there is a deeper and darker side to Strawdyke's determination to get revenge on Mr. Allard that eventually turns nasty, leaving the character somewhat alien to the audience.
Unlike Wick, Irwin, and Nipple, Malcolm seems much more alone and isolated, and having lost his only outside source of interaction, he has now become a prisoner of sorts in his tiny, cold bedsit. Almost all of the action takes place in his flat, and as the days countdown to when the kidnapping is to take place, Malcolm never seems to leave his room. There’s a convincing feel to the power that Malcolm wields, but one also feels that he has misunderstood the reasons why Wick, Irwin, and Nipple decide to follow his bizarre plan.
Both Wick and Irwin commit quite firmly to the party, are willing to follow Strawdyke to the very end, and remain convinced that he is right. They each make major sacrifices to be part of the party, with Irwin eventually having to move into Strawdyke’s tiny bedsit. But it’s not until the last moments, before the charge, that Wick and Irwin see that their general and fearless leader is in fact a fraud.
The companies' thick, broad Northern accents bounce off the Lowry-painted walls of Southwark Playhouse with a joy that is beautiful to hear. It’s not that often you get to hear these delightful Northern twangs in the Capital, and it offers the frank and honest tone that is imbedded in Halliwell’s text. Jemima Robinson’s design creates a believable space that, much like the accents, movement, and mannerisms of the company, offers a genuine touch of authenticity that grabs the audience and pulls us closer.
On reflection, some of the play's funniest and wildest moments happen to be some of its darkest, and it is only when you see the whole play and are walking away from it that you begin to feel the impact. Four scenes stand out as quite possibly some of the best-realised pieces of physical theatre that you’re likely to see. Each of the pre-reenactments is inspired and leaves you gasping for breath at the sheer brilliance of the comedy, the relationships between the men, and the insanity of it all. Nipple’s trial is cold and unforgiving and remarkably emotional, with a perfect delivery that has the audience hanging onto every single word spoken by each of the men. But it is the appearance of Ann, Rochenda Sandall, that allows the audience to really see the fragility and danger of Strawdykes' mind.
It’s not often that a play comes back after having such an interesting history, but it says something about Halliwell’s text that after 50 years it is back and as relevant as ever. It would be an understatement to say that director Clive Judd has only done justice to Halliwell’s text. Judd has taken a brutally complex text and has worked hard to ensure that the spirit, passion, and wildly carefree abandon of Halliwell’s text are brought to life with assured ease.
The company is the final piece of this play that leaves you breathless. Easton is unrelenting, and once he puts on his army surplus green-brown long jacket, he begins to embody the deluded mind of Malcolm Strawdyke with terrifying ease. He, much like the other company members, is flawless in his portrayal, and clearly they’ve realised early on the significance of what this revival production means: Jamieson and McElholm are never fools like Wick and Irwin, but rather young men who become misguided in their friendship with Strawdyke. What they see as support and blind agreement only allows Strawdryke to further detach himself from reality. Both the final scenes with Jamieson, McElholm, and Easton are effectively touching and resoundingly delicate.
"With Little Malcolm, audiences are treated to a glorious play, with all its absurdity and dated political rhetoric, that was written by a playwright who was proud of where he was from."
Coming in a little later than Irwin and Wick is Nipple, Arthur, who is initially on the fence but grows to be a full member of the party. Arthur keeps Nipple somewhat aloof from the others, but his respect for Malcolm is as real as the others. And yet it is the way Nipple is deposed that leaves you leaning forward uncomfortably, watching Strawdykes' kangaroo court. As Wick and Irwin play fully into Strawdykes' paranoia, Nipple looks out to his former party members, completely oblivious to what is going on, and Arthur is striking throughout the entire trial.
The only additional character to come into the play is Ann, who appears like a ghost and who greatly increases the tension while maintaining the gentle emotion that runs throughout the play. It’s never easy for a new character to be introduced towards the end of a production, but Ann’s appearance is flawlessly delivered by Sandall and helps bring about Strawdyke's downfall.
There has been great debate over the past couple of years about the lack of working-class opportunities in British theatre, and this seems to be a debate that is going to continue for some time as these roles and opportunities continue to be few and far between. With Little Malcolm, audiences are treated to a glorious play, with all its absurdity and dated political rhetoric, that was written by a playwright who was proud of where he was from. Little Malcolm pays a wonderful tribute to Huddersfield, and Halliwell’s detailed descriptions of the area where Strawdyke lives, the town centre, and the Jazz Club are remarkable.
Little Malcolm is an important reminder of the beauty that theatre can be when it is open, inclusive, and allows for more realistic narratives to be shared. Too few plays are as steeped in a working-class narrative as Little Malcolm, yet its authenticity lies in the fact that Halliwell, while being creatively wild, was also honest. He has given his text characters that are positive and real and bigger than normal, but he also never mocks them, and for a very short time, we get to experience a play that is unforgettable.