views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs
Southwark Playhouse
10th July 2015

★★☆☆☆

Barney McElholm, Scott Arthur and Daniel Easton as Irwin, Nipple and Malcolm

Photography © Thomas Scurr/p>

At this time of year, there are a lot of hour-long shows. Partially this is because there are so many companies trying to shine during the fringe season, it just wouldn't be fair to hog the stage for much more than 60 minutes. It's also got to be because it's so damn hot - most small venues can't afford effective air conditioning, and there's only so much sweating you can do in a black box theatre before you have to check into a hospital for dehydration. Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs is the best part of three hours. And this production, at the Southwark Playhouse, is abridged, down from David Halliwell's original six-hour epic some 50 years ago.

If you're going to make someone sit in the heat for three times the acceptable length for a summer show, every minute has to justify itself. On one hand, this is a play about a bunch of Peter Pan-esque boys being immature and wasting their lives, and you could argue the lengthy dialogue proves how unfulfilling their time is. On the other, you could say this is a production which could easily be hacked in half again and turned into a far sharper 90 minute show without losing any of the themes or characterisation. One of the strengths to Clive Judd's direction is that we have the measure of all the characters after only spending a small amount of time with each. Labouring the point just isn't necessary.

Malcolm (Daniel Easton) isn't exactly Huddersfield's most talented artist and doesn't make up for this mediocrity with any enthusiasm, leading the headmaster of the local arts college to chuck him out and warn his peers off him. An angry Malcolm believes he's been failed by the system - with the possibility he's brought it all on himself hanging in the air. Now, Malcolm can't be bothered getting out of bed in the morning yet he wants to lead a revolution, creating his own political party to destroy the headmaster and seize power. Imagine what he could achieve if he only bothered turned up to class.

With that said, Malcolm's frequent monologues and odd actions do suggest he's more than merely unhappy with his lot and showing signs of untreated mental illness. He's a fantastist and not an especially likeable character. The hint that perhaps he's actually unwell, and this would have gone easily unseen in the 1960s in which the play is set is enough to create a brief flicker of sympathy. It's a tiny bit of ambiguity which whether intentional or not, does add more interest.

Laurie Jamieson as Wick

Photography © Thomas Scurr/p>

Contemporaries Irwin (Barney McElholm), Wick (Laurie Jamieson) and Nipple (Scott Arthur) are quickly talked into walking out of college and joining Malcolm's party, aptly named the Party of Dynamic Erection. Initially the creative foursome engage in plenty of horseplay and make-believe, then are quickly transformed into walking penises, mirroring the images on their campaign flags. Their behaviour is sickening, and yet in reality they're all so very impotent, with Malcolm the particular floppy let down, talking a good talk, yet at every climatic moment, failing to deliver.

Whilst Malcolm's disciples do make their own decisions, we can see how easy it would be to be swept along by his words. He's far more dangerous than he realises, persuading three effectively nice boys to renounce their own principles and take on his. Irwin and Wick are both yes men, willing to acquiesce in exchange for Malcolm's friendship. Nipple is made to look a fool, tall and lanky with a hooded duffle coat and thick specs. Despite physically looking the weakest, he stands up to Malcolm with some deadpan throwaway remarks, balancing out the group of lost boys to point where when he leaves the stage, his presence is sorely missed.

The first half gets off to an especially tedious start, punctuated with some good farcical scenes as the four boys practise kidnapping the headmaster and enact a daft comedy caper in front of us. Music lightens the tone, and taking these moments out of context, finally we're drawn into the boys' world. In the second half, when Malcolm's object of affection, Ann (Rochenda Sandall), drops by to try and save him, the Lord of the Flies descent into animalistic dark urges is shocking and wipes all humour from the stage. This too makes for a gripping scene. However there is a lot of unnecessary action in between which makes it so hard to like this production.

When the lost boys plot their next move, they don't just talk about what they're going to do, they act it out. This is always where the play is at its most fascinating. The problem is that when they finally do something for real, the direction has to be much tighter to underline it's not just another game. Although the stage-fighting is framed well, the acted blows are not close enough to make us genuinely flinch.

Halliwell was critically acclaimed following the first run of the original six-hour version of this play. Personally, I don't get it. I can't help but wonder whether Judd felt an obligation to keep as much as he does here due to that prior recognition of the playwright's work. The length strikes me as far too self-indulgent; cut it down further and there's a decent play to be seen. It's possible I'm just not the target audience for Little Malcolm - too much oestrogen, maybe? I cannot though fathom who would enjoy sitting through this show in its current state. Some excellent scenes, but they're almost lost in all the futile padding.

Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs opened on 8th July and runs until 1st August 2015 at Southwark Playhouse.

Nearest tube station: Elephant & Castle (Bakerloo, Northern)



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