Known for his screenplays, and particularly for Trainspotting, John Hodge has written only one work for the stage. But premièring at the National Theatre in 2011, Collaborators swiftly went on the win the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play. I can see why. Hodge’s script moves fast and unpredictably; darkly comic, it won peals of laughter from me.
The play purports to base itself upon the favorable relationship between Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov and his dictator Joseph Stalin. Hodge inflates historical details and wildly reimagines the pair until they become arm-punching “real friends” and literary collaborators. It’s fair to say that the play offers a narrative of fantastic proportions. Nevertheless, faced with a drastic downsize, from the National’s gaping stage over to the intimacy of Balliol’s Pilch Studio, Oxford Innovative Theatre put on a show more than worthy of sustaining Hodge’s ingenious script.
Things were a little slow to start. I enjoyed a surreal opening sequence, in which Joe Peden, whom we can only infer is playing Stalin at this point, bursts furiously out of a cupboard to pursue a tormented Bulgakov (Rory Fraser) around the stage. This burst of exuberance is short-lived, however, and I began to find myself worrying that the production lacked energy.
Fortunately, those worries subsided almost as quickly, and within fifteen or so minutes Collaborators had my full and amused attention. Perhaps this switch coincided with the entrance of Callum Coghlan as NKVD man Vladimir, who stole the show for me. Handed a less obvious role than either Stalin or Bulgakov, Coghlan filled it with a more understated comedy. His timing never faltered and I was impressed by the coolness with which he delivered lines that sent his audience hooting.
As its leading duo, Fraser and Peden inevitably carry the show. Each relies on his contrast with the other to bring out the surrealism of his role: Hodge’s script bounces between both characters and begins gradually to elide the two. Peden is expert. Evidently dexterous in comic roles, he handled Stalin’s sinister humour with ease. This only gathers momentum as Peden goes along and I found it increasingly difficult not to join him in uproarious laughter at his brainchild, a little yellow canary in the chambers of the Winter Palace. Fraser’s well-spoken righteousness and wiry physicality made a lovely foil to the dictator’s laddy presence.
It is a strong cast across the board. Director George Varley’s intermittent appearances as a lecherous doctor prove him to be more than a one-trick-pony and Jake Boswall is endearing as Sergei, a worker cohabiting with the tinned apricots in Bulgakov’s cupboard. A series of theatrical interludes embedding the play Stalin has commissioned from his favourite playwright are a genius touch. Exaggerated to perfection, these moments testify to some clever direction from Varley and receive energetic performances by Bella Soames and Rupert Stonehill. Once again, wry interventions from Coghlan as the director-within-the-play delivered a comic realism to temper surrealism elsewhere.
A classical score as backing track and simple but realistic set – Bulgakov’s cupboard becomes key – by Nicole Jacobus, make this the complete package. Longer than most Pilch shows but with pace enough to sustain it, Collaborators flies by.