For some reason I had low expectations about Collaborators at the Cottesloe. The oddly shaped stage cutting a sort of zig-zag through the National's flexible space brought back bad memories of having endured Earthquakes in London but this new John Hodge play (he of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave fame) is the polar opposite of the Mike Bartlett number.
It's about Russian satirical playwright and writer Mikhail Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) silenced by censorship during the pre-second World War Stalin years. He's asked in a 'we'll imprison your wife' kind of way to write a play about Stalin to celebrate his 60th birthday. As well as keeping his wife out of jail, his most recent theatrical success - closed after just one triumphant performance - will be allowed to play again if he satisfactorily completes the job.
He has only four weeks and has writers block. How can he write a celebratory play about a man who has made his life and the lives of many others a misery, a man about whom he has nightmares? One night he gets a phone call asking him to go to a secret location and there he meets Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) himself who claims to be a big fan of his work.
In a surreal twist, the two come to an arrangement whereby Stalin will write the play:
Anyway, what have I got you sitting there for? You're not the typist, you're the genius! Let's swap! You come and sit here - leave the slave labour to me.
Bulgakov is persuaded to do the leader's job, making decisions about running the country and signing off orders.
The synopsis doesn't immediately scream comedy but it is laced with black humour exposing the absurd logic of Stalin's principles, his expertise in manipulation and the dehumanisation of the Russian people.
Who'd have thought Stalin could be both intimidating and funny but with Hodges words in SRB's hands it is deliciously sinister and amusing. Plaudits too must go to Jennings as harried writer Bulgakov. There is a great skill in playing the straight guy that is often overlooked and here he does it perfectly.
Everything works - the strangely angular stage, the reality juxtaposed with the surreal, the hammy play within the play. It is interesting, entertaining and face paced and I'm going to give it 5 stars.
It seems to have gone down well with the critics too. Four of the five features in the What's on Stage round up have given it four stars.
Production shot: Tristram Kenton
There are quite a few second and third degrees of separation because of the volume of work from the principles, particularly at the National, so I'm going to plump for Marcus Cunningham who plays Stepan and was in Hamlet with Rory Kinnear who of course played Laertes to Mr W's Hamlet at the Old Vic. Kinnear and Mr W will be reunited next year in the BBC's Richard II (Mr W playing the eponymous character while Kinnear is playing Bolingbroke).
But there is one other teeny connection between the particular performance I saw and Mr W. A certain Andrew Scott was in the audience he of Cock and The Hour fame. He ducked out at the interval though but was spotted outside the theatre afterwards on his mobile.