It has to be said that, no matter how good the play might be, programming a three-hour long piece in a small, studio theatre in July – without air conditioning – is going to be a test for any audience. We may not be able to rely on good weather here in the UK, but July is surely a safe enough bet.
Plus when that play is meant to be set in the dead of winter, but you can see the five actors literally sweating through their sheepskin coats under the lights, God love them, in this theatre-cum-sauna, while the audience are supposedly meant to believe they’re freezing in their squat – there’s stretching the imagination, and then there’s letting your mind wander to how much weight the cast must be losing after each performance, as you try to stop yourself from passing out.
Sadly, what is simply a thoroughly misjudged programming decision really does get in the way of enjoying Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, currently running in The Little at the Southwark Playhouse, when it’s hard to invest in the world of the play, let alone stay conscious.
Little Malcolm tells the story of young Malcolm Scrawdyke (Daniel Easton) who rallies a motley crew of his friends to take down the establishment (the conformist ‘eunuchy’, as they call it) by kidnapping the principal of their art school, Allard. However, the early burst of excitement and zeal that comes with forming the ‘Party of the Dynamic Erection’ soon turns sour as Scrawdyke wrestles with his inner demons, ultimately lashing out at his subordinates: the effervescent Wick (Laurie Jamieson), Irwin (Barney McElholm) and Nipple (Scott Arthur). Little Malcolm does feel pertinent in the wake of this week’s budget, which arguably targets the young, looking at the measures these four young men go to in order to reclaim the power they believe the authorities have stripped them of.
The thick heat of the theatre aside, the play in its current form (it was originally six hours long when it was first staged 50 years ago – now it’s three) is still rough around the edges, with not all of its meandering strictly necessary to the plot. This is not compensated for in Clive Judd’s direction, which is marked by a lack of clarity in the deliverance of the early scenes, leaving crucial plot points hazy. The uneasy negotiation of the use of the space and the actors’ relationship to the audience; some rather obvious, if not clumsy, lighting design; and the town plan scrawled on the back wall. It’s a sprawling piece that at times seems too wild a beast for the director, cast and team to tame, with elements that are as amateurish as the boy’s efforts to start a revolution from their flat.
This is not to say there isn’t some great talent involved: director Judd played a blinder a couple of years ago with Ali McDowall’s Captain Amazing, and is clearly honing his practice with this ambitious play. Often the cast, most notably Scott Arthur as the loquacious Nipple and Laurie Jamieson as the impressible Wick, are hilarious and loveable for their naive folly. The play’s real success comes from the frequent physical storytelling that the boys indulge in, acting out scenarios such as how their capture of Allard will play out, and Nipple’s supposed defection. These are genuinely funny and cleverly staged, and keep the audience on board as they wilt in the heat and the play wears on.
Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs is an ambitious play that is a feat of endurance for the actors and audience alike. Its parody of fascism, and loveable flair of youthful passion and zeal, makes for a fun and frothy night at the theatre, as well as a sweaty one.
Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 1 August. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Thomas Scurr.