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At first I was slightly apprehensive when I heard that John Hodge’s play, The Collaborators, was being performed in the Pilch Studio. The drama, set at the height of the Stalin era, depicts the gripping and somewhat disturbing relationship between playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and the Soviet dictator. Black humour would undoubtedly be a central element. But would the cast be able to capture the fine balance between funny and serious?

I was pleasantly surprised. The plot revolves around Bulgakov’s (Rory Fraser) attempt to write a play about Stalin (Joe Peden) for his 60th birthday celebrations in 1938. Torn between his will to defy oppression and the safety of his loved ones, Bulgakov finally agrees to the task, meeting the man himself for inspiration. It is in these meetings where the roles of writer and dictator change – with the Peden and Fraser duo bouncing off each other particularly well.

For me, however, it was Joe Peden’s magnetic portrayal of Stalin that stole the show. His gestures, his laugh and his expressions were not only entirely believable but also perhaps the most accurate embodiment of the Russian genre of dark comedy. Similarly, both the appearance of the director, George Varley, as the Doctor and Callum Coghlan’s dry and bureaucratic personality as Vladimir, the NKVD officer, inspired many laughs in the audience.

Although the Pilch was perhaps too small for the number of characters in Hodge’s play, I thought it rather embodied the cramped and slightly depressing nature of Soviet style housing. The set itself could at times be obstructive and seem inappropriate – particularly to the brilliant and hilarious partnership of Bella Soames and Rupert Stonehill who were nonetheless an excellent addition.

A particular mention must go to the wardrobe, which was used throughout the play as a bedroom/ front door/hiding place providing the audience with much entertainment. Equally, I was particularly impressed by the smaller details of the room – such as the use of Russian Standard Vodka as opposed to Glen’s or some other Western Brand. Highly commendable.

Although Hodge’s script is fast, complicated and at times confusing, I thought that ultimately the cast did well to guide the audience through the story. The few hick-ups, such as continued screaming after gunshots, were charming rather than wildly inappropriate.

The cast, the director and the whole production should be congratulated on a great performance. If you haven’t been to see it yet I highly recommend you try and scrounge a ticket for Saturday night’s last performance!

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