by David Halliwell
What a treat! Traffic lights in a play! Far be it that Traffic Light Theatregoer and her little limo ever identify with or are influenced by thespian japes! Yet there was a frisson of pleasure as four 1960s’ Huddersfield art student revolutionaries overran the lights in the dark comedy “Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against The Eunuchs” by the late David Halliwell, directed by Clive Judd in a three hour version.
Veteran director Mike Leigh, aged 22, took on Little Malcolm (formerly named "One Long Wank" but this was still the age of the Lord Chamberlain as censor) fresh from RADA in 1965. The original script would have run about 17 hours, although he managed to cut it down to a mere –er – six at its first performance.
Needless to say it flopped, but since then completed a pared-down West End and Broadway run with John Hurt, became an acclaimed movie produced by George Harrison (shelved for many years, after the Beatles' split, with solvent assets falling into the hands of The Official Receiver’s office) and has had various successful theatre runs.
Expelled from art school by his arch nemesis, the unseen principal Mr Allard, Malcolm Scrawdyke (Daniel Easton in a performance growing in stature as the play progressed), running out of coins for his meter, determines to grab “absolute power” with his Dynamic Erection party from those he deems his enemies characterised as “eunuchs"
From his local stronghold with his cronies, manipulative Irwin Ingham (Barney McElholm), artist Wick Blagdon (Laurie Jamieson), would be novelist and eventual rival Dennis Charles Nipple (Scott Arthur), he plots to kidnap and blackmail Allard plus steal a Stanley Spencer painting.
The play is structured around a series of monologues with the group’s winter adventures interspersed. All the while party policies become suffused with their own insecurities and fear of women.Wrapped in party flags and banners, their actions driven by treacherous words eventually take a turn for the sinister reaching a pinnacle with a show trial (Scott Arthur at his resonant best as the defendant) with fabricated 'facts' and violence.
The audience sits on two sides of a performance area, Scrawdyke’s bedsit cum studio. An evocative blackboard Lowry-type industrial town in white chalk serves as backdrop with a cleverly concealed door from designer Jemima Robinson. The discerningly used jazz snippets (there are a record player and LPs on the set) and drum sound effects (shades of recent demagogue movie Whiplash?) by Giles Thomas also deserve an accolade with lighting from Elanor Higgins.
The first half was marred by some impenetrable accents, apart from McElholm’s distinctive Irwin, though the laughs still came thick and fast. Nevertheless the accents miraculously gained in clarity in the second act.
And it is very funny. Watching, we were reminded of the best of Tony Hancock, maybe Till Death Do Us Part, and, very much in the second act, of Harold Pinter.
Yet this baggy monster of a play about a monster and his acolytes stands on its own two feet, assimilating Napoleon, Hitler and gas chambers, Doestoevsky, Nietzche, Shaw, Lord of The Flies, Joyce, Chaplin, Look Back In Anger, Cole Porter, Kafka, Orwell and probably more. At the same time perhaps looking forward in more innocuous form, John Sullivan’s sitcom Citizen Smith and Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and Lisa Mayer’s The Young Ones.
Of course the play’s iconography may be very much rooted in an analysis of the conditions leading to the rise of Hitler with the Ministries of Justice, Propaganda and the courts in key roles. While with the Trotskyite and Stalinist factions of the 1950s and 1960s’ in the Soviet Union and beyond, grants could equally mean “Soviet gold” (or copeks for the meter!) for foreign agents as much as British local education authority funding for students (sadly topical).
The same ambivalence emerges in the Pinteresque second act, with the bedsit named as 3a Commercial Chambers – a Tony Hancock-type address if ever there was one. Yet the legalistic manoeuvrings also reminiscent of some perverted barristers’ chambers metamorphose into a state-of-the-nation comment on post imperial Cold War Britain starved of resources as much as the National Socialist corporate state and Soviet Union.
A late violent episode against the only woman in the piece Ann Gedge (a nuanced performance by Rochenda Sandall) reminded us of Pinter’s Lenny punching an old lady, left by her brother “in law”, in The Homecoming when Lenny clears snow for the borough council.
All in all, the second act of Little Malcolm felt far more of an organic whole than the first. It’s a bit touch and go before that. Still, at the end of three hours, it all felt needed. The charismatic characters with the integral intricate twists and turns of thought keep the play fresh for its 50th anniversary - and there's traffic lights too! :) So an amber/green light from TLT!