Review by Harry Bower
London, 1917. Glasgow, 1924. Moscow, 1935. London, 1956. All these dates and locations have one thing in common. They are part of a true historical love story from a time gone by, one tangled in geopolitics and told now for the first time on-stage in Francis Beckett’s new play, Vodka with Stalin.
You may be forgiven for judging this play by its title and blurb and assume that it is primarily about the relationship between upcoming leader of the British Communist Party, Harry Pollitt, and the infamous Soviet Union dictator, Joseph Stalin. In fact that relationship, while important, is not the main focus of the piece. Instead the audience are whisked on a rapid journey spanning forty years, tracking Pollitt and his presumed former lover Rose Cohen as they are dragged into Stalin’s web of suspicion and eventually his purge, at first willingly and subsequently of course, not.
Cohen, from East London, and Pollitt, from Lancashire, begin in London, winning people over for their ‘cause’ – their belief in communism and that it offers a brighter future for all in England. Thanks to the introduction of Max Petrovsky, a Russian communist, they drift apart and each begin their own dramatic accessions. Pollitt now the leader of the party in Britain has regular meetings with Stalin, gossiping about British politicians, and yes, drinking lots of vodka. It is Cohen though with perhaps the most interesting story, a self-professed “refugee Jew from East End London slums” goes on to undertake missions on behalf of the Soviet Union under Petrovsky’s guidance, and the pair marry and move to Moscow – Cohen becoming the editor of an English language newspaper. As Stalin’s purge becomes wider-reaching, Petrovsky and Cohen are caught up in it, and the tone of the play shifts as Pollitt is left to use up his own credit in the bank of Stalin. In trying to save Cohen and her newborn son, that credit is spent, and Pollitt is removed from Stalin’s inner circle, racked with guilt in his inability to be Cohen’s knight in shining armour.
As writer Beckett acknowledges in his programme notes, creative license is abundant in this show. There were occasions it felt historical references were shoe-horned in (Angela Lansbury becoming famous) but largely the writing is authentic. Despite some laboured scenes – one involving the leader of the labour party was particularly around-the-houses in its approach – it is an enjoyable and informative historical play with a solid narrative. A screen hanging over the stage dictates the era and location. Aside from the projected date and city there is little else to indicate a change in locale, only some period music played over the top and some lighting fades both of which somewhat distracted from the plot.
Performances are overall strong. Harry Pollitt is played by David Malcolm, able to portray the heart wrenching emotion arising from inability to save someone you love, while displaying the necessary confidence and cheek of a political charmer. His opposite is great too, Miranda Colmans playing Rose Cohen with an endearing cockney accent and the appropriate air of self-assuredness required of an impressive historical figure. The pair have a tangible chemistry during their scenes, and it is their interactions which prove the most dynamic. Jonathan Hansler tackles the role of psychopath Joseph Stalin with aplomb, delivering a convincing portrayal without straying into Borat-impersonation territory (an affliction of many actors attempting Eastern European accents). Hansler’s performance is imaginative and laced with the cold-hearted suspicion one assumes Stalin was all about. Some of the fringe performances aren’t at the same level as the three primary characters which made some scenes an uncomfortable watch.
I struggled with investing in Pollitt and Cohen’s relationship, particularly toward the end. Not enough is done at the top end of the show to convince the audience they are in love, so when it all comes crumbling down, I just wasn’t invested. It also appears the ending wasn’t obvious to the writer. I spotted at least two if not three ideal endings, but the play continues well past where you think it’ll come to a close – with Pollitt delivering a speech after Stalin’s death, then meeting Cohen’s son, and finally having a conversation with her ghost. Each further scene seems unnecessary after the last, almost as if the play is trying to redeem Pollitt in the audience’s eyes or at the very least offer some conjecture on his behaviour.
Vodka with Stalin is an enjoyable take on an unknown political romance which captures very well the secrecy and paranoia of the era, giving a creative reflection of Stalin’s rule. It questions the battle of ideologies and acts as a warning to the audience against dictatorships – ambitiously laying out what can happen if we get hoodwinked, through the eyes of an enthusiastic but perhaps naïve principal character. Although it suffers occasionally with laboured scenes and poor use of tech, the interesting historical context and some brilliant performances make this play worth your time. And with the ever-reliable Gatehouse pub downstairs, you too can have Vodka with Stalin.
Vodka with Stalin plays at Upstairs At The Gatehouse in Highgate until Sunday 02 April 2023. For more information and to buy tickets visit:https://www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com/
Photos by Mark Thomas