Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (Image: Thomas Scurr)
"One long wank from beginning to end," pronounces Malcolm Scrawdyke, the young delinquent demagogue at the heart of David Halliwell's eruptive 1965 play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. But while at first Scrawdyke, an art student ideologue who suffers the world from his Huddersfield digs, simply appears to be illustrating his acerbic brand of nihilism, it may also be a case of the playwright cannily pre-empting his detractors. Such is the nuance, arid wit and occasional self-indulgence of the virtuoso script, it would be no surprise.
Scrawdyke's tyrannical tale is an age-old one. As if Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui were transposed to Yorkshire in the depths of bone-chattering winter. Disillusioned, he becomes the self-appointed ringleader of a group of rebellious art students - Nipple (Scott Arthur), Wick (Laurie Jamieson) and Irwin (Barney McElholm), capable and committed - who initially spend their time arguing about corduroy jackets and puckishly planning art heists. But it's when they form the Party of the Dynamic Erectionists, with talk of putsches and coups and fascist salutes, that the proceedings gain an ominous clout.
The original production - an unqualified failure at the Edinburgh Fringe - had Halliwell in the title role, was directed by a 22-year-old Mike Leigh, and lasted nearly six hours (down from more than twice that in written material). The George Harrison-led 1974 film adaptation garnered a cult following and won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, whereas a heavily-cut revival starring Ewan McGregor at the Hampstead Theatre in 1998 was a sell-out. Director Clive Judd's muscular, vibrant 50th anniversary production at Southwark Playhouse is a welcome addition to that lineage.
It's a paean to the North, with Jemima Robinson's set design depicting the billowy industrial backdrop of LS Lowry's paintings and lilting Pennine accents. Daniel Easton is quite astounding in the lead role, emanating steel and menace from within his time-worn greatcoat, though not without ribald charm and endearing humour. His flawless performance is redolent of another Malcolm - McDowell - in Lindsay Anderson's anarchic vision of public school life, If... (1968).
Indeed rather than a "bedsit Hitler", Scrawdyke has more modern touchstones. Almost exactly a decade on from the 7/7 attacks in London, it's difficult to ignore the fact that the bombers all came from Yorkshire. Brought to mind also are the failures of student activism and the Occupy movement, but most presciently, the terrifying recent success of Nigel Farage. This is a contemporary whirlwind of paranoia, impotence and diminished masculinity, and perhaps fittingly, is levelled out by a memorable appearance from Rochenda Sandall's intrepid, clear-minded Ann.
At almost a three hour runtime, Little Malcolm does sag slightly in the latter stages - almost impossible not to when compared to the blitzy adrenaline rush of the first act. But even then, Halliwell's zinging one-liners shine through: "Show me a well groomed head and I'll show you the enemy of creative imagination". A timeless and timely work.
Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs is on at Southwark Playhouse until 1 August