So Tuesday night, London, and we’re walking up the Finchley Road in the rain. Warm rain as it’s summer in England and we’re getting used to not freezing every time the heavens open. Destination JW3. We were schlepping through the rain to see comedian, writer, actor and journalist David Schneider’s new play, Making Stalin Laugh. And it didn’t disappoint. The play accelerates through quick and clever comedy, juxtapositions of humour and reflection, fear-laden anxiety and extraordinary comedic one-liners.
The pace reflects David’s cyclone of a mind to deliver an engaging play on the nearly-forgotten Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. In his words “A Yiddish theatre company that bucked the stereotype”. Chagall designed for them, Eugene O’Neill and Shostakovich admired them. They came up against it when Stalin’s mayhemic regime control changed “state” criteria and made for a paranoid, fear-induced period of accusatory surveillance and censorship. The way the play unfolds you can only admire the theatre’s courage as it ploughs through the purges of the 1930s, WWII, post-war anti-Jewish arrests and executions.
The play focusses on the director and lead actor of the troupe, Solomon Mikhoels a larger than life, Brian-Blessed Laurence-Olivier cross, believing in the importance of theatre for freedom and expression. Darrell D’Silva plays Mikhoels superbly, gradually dropping the mask of pomposity to reveal the tragedy of personal regret, finally declaring his love for Nina, played so measuredly by Sandy McDade.
As the speed of the simple set changes, we feel the rapidity of changing and challenging dynamics that the theatre and in fact the whole country had to deal with. Confusion, insecurity, fear and disorder peppered progress as they tried to jump through the Stalinist hoops to keep the theatre alive.
Clever choices of lines recited from Lear and back-stage script discussions shoot right through a skilful net of hilarious comedy, music and stage business. Jonah Russell and Beverley Klein delivered lines that made me weep with laughter.
David Schneider always delivers.
It finishes on July 9th, but it really deserves a tour, watch out for it!
And JW3? Great name for a great venue. If you love good theatre, good food, a social open-plan environment, nice wine, coffee and absolutely mouth-watering desserts then make sure JW3 is on your radar. There’s even a free BEACH to enjoy during the summer, so what are you waiting for, book a table at ZEST, the venue’s mouth-watering restaurant, to sample a light Pinot alongside a firework taste-explosion of aubergines, menageries of couscous and roasted cauliflower, béchamel-sauce drizzled temptations nestled on puff pastry bases, chocolate fondant – to paraphrase a line in the play, however bad it gets if there’s good food it makes it all tolerable (you gotta have a laugh too!). L’chaim!