Heil Scrawdyke” is the eventually ironic mantra spoken by the four would-be anarchists at the center of “Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs ,” but most audiences are likely to leave the Hampstead Theater revival of David Halliwell’s 1965 play hailing the arrival of a new London theater star in film name Ewan McGregor.
Making his London theater debut six years after he took to the stage to play Joe Orton in regional rep, McGregor brings to the stage the same fierce passion and eyes-on-fire energy that have fueled his rapid screen ascent, staking a serious claim to a whole new career.
McGregor is the production’s self-evident calling card, and it’s typical of this actor’s idiosyncratic career that “Little Malcolm” is weird and compelling. The strangeness of the play — essentially a long, peculiar and fascinating shaggy-dog saga of insurrection — lies partly in its quasi-baroque Huddersfield patois (those who know the script, fear not: “Little Malcolm” plays much better than it reads), which doomed the play to brief London and Broadway runs more than 30 years ago. Additionally, time hasn’t necessarily been kind to author Halliwell’s take on an art student’s fiery putsch that extends the “angry young man” dramaturgy of the post-Osborne era and critiques it.
But Denis Lawson’s absolutely triumphant remounting of it validates a potentially dated period piece as a still-powerful slice of dramatic history, at least as acted by the crackerjack quintet Lawson (McGregor’s uncle) has assembled (with help from the invaluable set designer Rob Howell). Lawson’s achievement — among many — is not to alienate the audience from characters who are alienated from themselves, and to that end he has the perfect ally in a nephew whose own charm and charisma sustain interest in Scrawdyke even when his actions threaten to repel.
When first seen, he’s hiding under the bedclothes from the icy blast outside, and plotting his revenge on the art establishment — the so-called “eunuchs” — who have expelled him from their midst. Before long, Scrawdyke has engaged three chums to join his crusade in what turns into a parable of totalitarian misrule.
Dennis Charles Nipple (Sean Gilder) is the scapegoat of the quartet, a bespectacled geek so fond of argument that he’ll quarrel over even his own name. Joining him, after a fashion, is Joe Duttine’s John (Wick) Blagden, whose talk of “mediocrities” stamps him out as this play’s resident (if much younger) Salieri. Made of sterner stuff than one at first might think is Irwin Ingham (Nicolas Tennant), the group’s so-called “minister of finance” who won’t let something like a stutter stand in his blackly comic path.
These men, of course, are simply boys playing a game for which they’re ill-equipped, and the tone shifts once they allow a woman — Lou Gish’s feisty Ann — into what has been Scrawdyke’s scruffy north of England bachelor preserve. Spurred on by one another, the men turn violent, much to the alarm and shock of Ann, who is left crawling across the stage, even if Scrawdyke — a scene or two later — will be (psychologically speaking) crawling after her in contrition.
In the wrong hands, Scrawdyke could emerge merely as a pathetic bully, a no-hoper artist whose delusional revolt engenders little more than disgust. Instead, McGregor inspires sympathy for Scrawdyke, without once sentimentalizing a man whose garrulousness comes to include the painful self-knowledge that he is a dysfunctional, sexually frustrated kid on the verge of suicide, not the would-be Napoleon preparing his own Elba.
It’s a long and potentially bravura role in which McGregor delivers the goods — John Hurt played it on the West End and in a little-seen film — backed by an ace cast who ensure that the play is no vanity (or, indeed, family) affair. While clenched-fist talk of “the great day” may leave one pining for a truly radical play (“Angels In America,” say), this “Little Malcolm” makes so much other theater look dead simply because of the sheer charge wrought by watching McGregor live.