You’re probably familiar with David Schneider from his work on The Day Today and I’m Alan Partridge. At the very least, you’ve almost certainly stumbled upon his prolific Twitter presence – short, snappy laughs often accompanied by amusingly-Photoshopped images. However, like me, you probably weren’t aware that before becoming an actor, writer, director and power-Tweeter, he researched a doctorate in Yiddish Drama at Oxford.
During his studies, he came across the intriguing GOSET – the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. The company’s stars, stories and stage productions kept cropping up, and their influence on Russian life, Yiddish culture and the arts became hard for Schneider to resist.
During its heyday in the 1920-30s, the GOSET’s charismatic artistic director Solomon Mikhoels was world-renowned, collaborating with Chagall and praised by Shostakovich. By the mid-1930s, the company went from being celebrated and adored to being accused of counter-revolutionary acts, to the point that a bad review could literally be a death sentence.
Making Stalin Laugh, commissioned by West Hampstead’s impressive JW3 cultural centre, is not a classic wartime tale of ordinary people triumphing over adversity in the face of terror. Schneider has found in the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre a unique story that definitely needs sharing.
The group of talented, culturally important celebrities struggled to ensure that “the show must go on” in spite of defection, the Second World War, purges and post-war anti-Jewish executions.
Schneider focuses specifically on his knowledge of Yiddish culture, rather than ‘Jewish life’, and flexes his joke writing muscles throughout the second half with some excellent stand-out one-liners. As political tension grows and the world around the theatre becomes unpredictable and deadly, the cast deliver Schneider’s short, snappy tweetable pun-style laughs perfectly.
Darrell D’Silva is well-cast as egocentric, promiscuous genius Mikhoels. The rest of the cast work wonderfully together, sharing vodka-soaked highs and lows in each other’s arms.
Beverly Klein offers excellent comic delivery as witty seasoned actress Esther, but D’Silva’s towering Brian Blessed-esque grandeur and self-referential Topol/Tevye-style egotism overshadows any hints of stand-out performances or sub-plots. Tangled romances and vague mentions of back-stories are left undeveloped to make way for the caricature of Mikhoels. This may be an honest interpretation of life in a theatre company alongside such a personality – arrogance, affairs and all – but it left gaps where the audience needed to develop sympathy and understanding.
The political backdrop is, aside from a couple brief moments or scenes, spoken about rather than performed or experienced. Whilst the focus remains, rightly, on the lives and work of the GOSET, I found it hard to feel concerned about anything the characters claimed to be going through because I didn’t go through it with them.
The GOSET’s story has all the ingredients of an engaging and captivating script – fame, ego, scandal, sex and spies – but ‘Making Stalin Laugh’ fails to provide the audience with quite enough character depth for us to feel as sad as we should when faced with loss and, essentially, the end of Yiddish culture in Europe.
Making Stalin Laugh runs at JW3 until 9th July. Full details and tickets here.