The ‘Living History’scheme of Theatre Unlimited seeks to enrich students’ understanding of momentous events by using personal testimony theatre. Stalin’s Favourite, adapted and performed by Rupert Wickham, shows the strengthens and weaknesses of this educational approach.
 
The play sets-out the inherent defects of the Soviet approach with brevity and clarity. The collective approach to farming failed because the paranoid authorities could not tolerate dissent and got rid of any critics – even if they were capable at their work. Bad matters were made worse as informers were promoted to positions for which they were unqualified.
 
There is a wealth of fascinating detail – in the dormitories everything was shared including underwear. Children were given names made up of the initials of Party Members. A play extensively ghost written by Stalin was actually criticised for liberalism.
 
But the educational aspect is at the expense of the drama. The story is told from the viewpoint of poet Konstantin Simonov who enjoyed great success as the favourite writer of Stalin. The biographical details of Simonov’s life are, again, very well communicated and convey how it must have been to cope with the aftermath of the October Revolution and the coming of the Terror. Simonov re-invented himself as a member of the labouring class to escape any retribution that might arise from the privileged background of his mother and later his sentimental poems, that idealised Stalin’s Russia, brought him fame.
 
As a history lesson, this is fine stuff and totally engaging but it lacks drama. Simonov does not develop as a result of his experiences and realises the significance of events only in hindsight when it is too late to act.  Although Simonov felt shame about his actions in later life he did nothing to make reparation.

Helping out a few friends doesn’t make him Oskar Schindler. Nor can this be seen as the tragedy of an artist who compromised his work for advancement, as the poems featured in the play are awful sentimental stuff. The irony of such dubious works being held in high regard is never brought out.
 
Director Peter Symonds does his best to make this more than just a play for schools using Michael Folkard’s set to give the sense of someone trapped in his memories. But some of his decisions are questionable. Key moments are emphasised by the lights dimming but the twilight is held so long that the performance continues with the audience squinting at the stage.  Rupert Wickham is clearly committed to his work but his voice lacks projection and inflection.
 
Stalin’s Favourite certainly achieves its educational aims but struggles to be of interest to a wider audience.
 
- Dave Cunningham

(Reviewed at the Lowry, Salford)