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Review: Collaborators

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1

    This fizzing, Nicholas Hytner-directed stage debut by Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge takes its inspiration from the play that Mikhail Bulgakov was compelled to write about his number one fan - Stalin.

    It is an offer Bulgakov cannot refuse. His suppressed play about Molière will be removed from the communist version of development hell, in return for which theatre-lover Stalin gets a flattering stage portrait of himself.

    It must have been an absurd situation for a free-thinking, liberal dramatist to find himself in, and appropriately enough Hodge pitches his play into absurdist territory by imagining the Stalin work as the mother of all vanity projects.

    Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) not only collaborates on the script with its subject (Simon Russell Beale's baleful comedy tyrant is alone worth a ticket), but, at the dictator's invitation, swaps roles so that Stalin takes on the donkey work at the typewriter - "leave the slave labour to me" - while Bulgakov takes on the job of Supreme Leader, scribbling out orders that unwittingly result in mass starvation and oppression.

    Satirists know that comedy and tyranny go well together. Hodge adds to the mix with a very funny secret policeman (Mark Addy) who doubles as an impresario.

    Hytner, meanwhile, never takes his eye off the murderous truth about the regime that the play lampoons. But the evening loses steam as it moves from absurdist nightmare to making serious points about the moral price paid for collaboration The lessons are hardly revelatory and, as the satire turns to realism, it is a bit like watching a metaphor that turns out to be about itself, the point of which is frustratingly elusive.

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