Publicity Designer: Alfred Leigh

Downing Dramatic Society and Clare Actors transport us back to Moscow 1938. Playwright Mikhail Bulgakov’s work is relentlessly banned by the Soviet Union due to his non-conformist outlook and dissident politics. From here we are taken on a surreal journey full of dark humour. Bulgakov is offered the chance for his play, Molière, to be performed after it was banned by the politburo. However, in return he must go against his principles and write a hagiographic play about Stalin.

“He is funny without being a fool and terrifying without the reducing the role to that of a bond villain”

John Hodge’s piece is brilliantly performed. The stand-out performance is from Jamie P. Robson who plays Stalin. Robson gets the tone of the character just right. He is funny without being a fool and terrifying without the reducing the role to that of a bond villain. Robson’s Stalin displays an understated power. He is so powerful that there is little need for him to shout or stamp his feet. He appears almost normal – and likeable. Likewise Dan Blick captures the conflicted writer Bulgakov perfectly. The arc for Bulgakov is well constructed and performed. He is relatable; the audience is able to feel real empathy for his situation as he navigates the fine line between sticking to his principles and getting ahead, or simply surviving, in a harsh world. The play is at its best when Stalin and Bulgakov are on stage together. The writer is trying to get into the head of his character and wants get to know ‘the real him’. Unfortunately, his character is Stalin, the ultimate manipulator.

The show is well staged and all credit goes to the director Charlie Morrell-Brown. One of the funniest inclusions is that the USSR had assigned so many people to live in Bulgakov’s house that the newest arrival Sergei, comically played by Luke Baines, has to live in a cupboard. The comedy is amplified when Sergei invites numerous other characters into his room. Further humour is brought to the play by James Coe, playing the secret police officer-come-director, Vladimir. Coe is suitably sinister as the NKVD officer, which makes for excellent comedy when he reveals that he wants to enter the acts scene as director of Bulgakov’s play.

“Enjoyable throughout”

The scenes that let the performance down are the ones with Bulgakov and his wife Yelena, played by Amelia Hills. Yelena is one-note. There is no character development or individual personality. Her sole role in the performance is to express concern for Bulgakov, to the extent that her character may as well be called ‘concerned wife’.

Bulgakov and Grigory (played by the talented Maya Yousif) bring an interesting subplot in their characters’ contrasts. As the fortunes of Bulgakov rise, Grigory sees his life destroyed because he stuck too firmly to his principles, on the advice of Bulgakov. Naturally, as we are in the Soviet Union the play does not have the happiest of endings. Just like Bulgakov, the audience are sucked into sympathising with Stalin and conceding that running the country must be incredibly challenging – then it is too late. The climax of the play leads us into Russia’s Great Terror. No one is safe and the audience are left feeling almost complicit.


Mountain View

Review: Gypsy

The play is enjoyable throughout and the tone is just right. It is funny, but this does not distract from the powerful themes and well-developed characters. It is well worth a watch.

Collaborators will run at the Corpus Playroom until Saturday, 25 November 2017

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