The Critics: Theatre: Little Ewan and his latest triumph

Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs Hampstead, NW3 The Storm Almeida, N1 Into the Woods Donmar, WC2
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The Independent Culture
Anyone who sat in on an audition in the late 1970s or early 1980s knows that every other actor out of drama school would have a speech they could do from Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs. Before the arrival of Withnail and I, it was a text close to many people's hearts. One reason, perhaps, why Little Malcolm has all these socking great speeches is that the part was originally played by its author - and only later by John Hurt.

Fast forward a couple of decades and here's another actor doing a speech from David Halliwell's first and most successful play. Only this time it's Ewan McGregor, the man who dives down the loo in Trainspotting, plays a gay rock star in Velvet Goldmine, and wields laser sabres as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the forthcoming Star Wars prequel. He is (so Vanity Fair tells us) the biggest actor to emerge from Scotland since Sean Connery. He would get any job going, so long as Leonardo DiCaprio isn't up for it. And here he is, slumming it in Hampstead's 170-seater theatre, bringing all those audition speeches flooding back.

McGregor plays Malcolm Scrawdyke, an art student in Huddersfield in the mid-1960s. To put it in context, mid-1960s Huddersfield is closer to the Triassic or Cretaceous age than to today. The students' main intellectual and social activity was the making and drinking of cups of tea. They kept their duffle-coats on indoors because of the cold and could casually refer to Elba without having to explain what Napoleon was doing there or who he was. To judge from Halliwell's play, which hits us with the revelatory force of an anthropological case-study, men and women were separate species, roaming entirely different areas of the earth.

A comic version of the rise of a dictator, Halliwell's play follows the voluble Malcolm's expulsion from the Tech, his recruitment of his friends Ingham, Wick and Nipple to the revolutionary Dynamic Erection Party, the painting of a banner, the planning of a kidnapping, the creation of a tribunal to mete out internal discipline, and subsequent violence and defections. When it premiered in New York in 1966 it was titled, for those who need an extra nudge, "Hail Scrawdyke!"

In any identity parade you'd be unlikely to mistake Ewan McGregor for Adolf Hitler. Fairish, bearded, and with bags of stage charm, McGregor speeds this amiable play forward, as he switches from the slumped figure in a foetal curl to thehunched dynamo in the greatcoat pacing his bleak bedsit-cum-studio and masterminding his Yorkshire revolution. He has a daring ability to look straight at the audience as if it's a camera. He has fun too: when he practises a political speech, he grasps the bare light bulb at the top of a lampstand, tilts it over and mouths into it. Here's a student in Huddersfield doing his Mick Jagger act three years before "Jumpin' Jack Flash".

Today, the play's disparate elements stand out clearly. There's the spoof on revolutions from a time when people talked in earnest, abstract terms about revolutionary processes. There's the black comedy about power: at the mock tribunal the accused can enter a plea of "guilty" or "very guilty". And there's the angry young man in a dead-end situation struggling against numbing authority (a late, late version of Jimmy Porter and the Fifties rant). All this is set against that familiar backdrop of northern realism. Rob Howell's detailed studio set makes full use of the Hampstead space. But Denis Lawson's enjoyable, if overlong production - which hits its highs with the very funny flights of fancy as the gang rehearse the raid on the art gallery and the kidnapping of the teacher - is caught between the realism of the designs and the totally unrealistic plot.

It survives thanks to some deft, sprightly acting. Joe Duttine's sharply- dressed Wick, Sean Gilder's lank-haired, toothy would-be novelist, Nipple, and Nicolas Tennant's comically hesitant Ingham (in brown tie, brown v-neck and wide lapels) give McGregor terrific, if comparatively stagy, support. Lou Gish, the no-nonsense young Ann who sees their fear of women, strolls in, with droll directness, as if from another planet.

Watching Hettie Macdonald's revival of Ostrovsky's The Storm is like switching between two weather maps. When the women are on, The Storm appears as an inky whorl. Good, you think, that's heading our way. When the men are on, there's only the possibility of mild showers.

This is partly the play. The heart of the story is Katya, a young Russian in the 1850s, married to one man and in love with another. Her impulsive nature is in deep conflict with her sense of sin. But Ostrovsky's indignant play lies halfway between an ensemble portrait of an oppressive, enfeebled Russian society and a riveting melodrama that tips into tragedy.

Susan Lynch is brilliantly cast as Katya. She has a quickness and responsiveness that suggests an elemental force. As her suffocating mother-in-law, Kabanova, Maggie Steed dispenses husky scorn with Thatcherite clarity. As the surprisingly sympathetic sister-in-law, Varvara, Patricia Kerrigan convincingly shows that the bond between young women runs deeper than family ties. The violent emotions within this enclosed female world, and the inter-connectedness of their lives, emerges so forcefully, in comparison to the vacillations and compromises of the husband (Paul Hilton) and the lover (Richard Lynch). The play splits into two in Frank McGuinness's new translation, but it's because Ostrovsky's sympathy for Katya's plight is gusting at Force 10 and leaving all else behind.

Once upon a time there were two brothers called Crowley. The older one was a theatre designer called Bob and the younger was a theatre director called John. But they had never worked together. Until one day someone asked them to do a revival of Into The Woods, Stephen Sondheim's musical about fairy tales. Along the way, they encountered many obstacles. It was a complicated musical, which threads a number of tales - Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella - into one big new fairy tale about a baker and his wife who want a child. The stage that Bob and John had to deal with was only a little one, so an awful lot had to be crammed in. But Bob was very clever with his perspectives: using a forest of fir trees, a tiny revolve and an illuminated mini castle at the top.

John's problem was that not all the singers had strong voices, even when you were listening from very close. But a resource-ful director, he drew out loveable performances, especially from Sophie Thompson (who did have a good voice too) as the Baker's wife, and just the right combination of comic energy and innocence. Thanks to the brothers Crowley, London now has its own pocket-sized version of this panto for adults: fiendishly clever and very hummable.

'Little Malcolm': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301), to 2 January; 'The Storm': Almeida, N1(0171 359 4404), to 19 December; 'Into The Woods': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732), to 13 February.

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