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Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs (continuing at Southwark Playhouse until 1 August) is an extraordinary piece of theatre. Fifty years old now, it sears with power, both of its time back then and of its time now, a funny, farcical, frightening rollercoaster ride that cranks it up to eleven for not far short of three hours.

The details don't sound much - four art students are busy plotting against their strict Principal (think of Bart's struggles with Skinner) after their de facto leader (the eponymous Malcolm) is expelled on New Year's Eve 1964. These Huddersfield lads are dreamers - there's a bit of Shepherd's Bush's Harold Steptoe and Tooting's Wolfie Smith in them (and Wolfie's alter-ego, Peckham's Del Boy Trotter too) and the mismatch between the Yorkshire lads' ambitions and their resources drive the laughs that punctuate the ever darker story.

Because there's something too of four other Yorkshire lads - those who attacked London on 7 July 2005 - as Malcolm starts to believe his own mad schemes and his acolytes feel too deeply invested to pull out. There's as distressing a scene as I have witnessed in a theatre when this awful power of peer-pressure mixed with testosterone boils over - but it's a necessary scene no matter how hard it may be to watch. And the world knows not to underestimate the power of a failed art student with delusions of grandeur.

Director Clive Judd may have potent source material in David Halliwell's sensational script, but it's a real achievement to realise it so fully and grip an audience on a hot London evening. Judd can do this because he gets full value from his actors, whose gruelling lot it is to play out this individual and collective trauma night after night.

Daniel Easton is in award-winning form as Malcolm, a charismatic leader who provokes as much pity as repulsion, but never loses his power as credible iconic figure for his acolytes - it's a huge performance. Laurie Jamieson's Wick is his most loyal follower, a whirlygig of energy and talent, funny and fearsome, the classic bright boy being led astray. Barney McElholm's Irwin is the weak one, the easily-led boy who longs to belong, but longs also to do the right thing by conventional mores. Scott Arthur's Nipple is the supercilious one, above all this, but drawn to Malcolm because, unlike him, he might actually do something instead of merely talk about it. Rochenda Sandall's Ann is the only grown-up we see (despite her being the boys' contemporary) and thus becomes a focus as Malcolm shows his true colours in as chilling a scene as the one between Combo and Milky in This Is England (another drama that owes much to this work, consciously or subconsciously).

That said, Malcolm's manifesto cannot be simply dismissed as the ravings of a teenager high on Castro and cannabis. Wilhelm Reich's Listen Little Man is an obvious source for much of Malcolm's thinking and, like Malcolm, Reich was ostracised and belittled in his own time. Yet Listen Little Man has much to say about how important it is to resist the easy seduction of political leaders, how one must question the status quo and how fascism can gain ground with its little erosions of everyday freedoms.

Malcolm may be mad, as well as mad as hell and not going to take it any more, but UKIP got nearly 4m votes in May's UK General Election - Malcolm's warnings should be heeded today even as we condemn his own extremism.

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From This Author Gary Naylor