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'Eternal lessons on dictatorship': John McDonnell reviews 'Vodka with Stalin'

David Malcolm as Harry Pollitt and Jonathan Hansler as Stalin | Photographer: Mark Thomas

3 min read

A heartrending account of one man’s attempt to save his former lover from Stalin’s purges

Francis Beckett’s last play, Clement Attlee, was a wonderful depiction of Clem as the quiet but firm manager of a cabinet comprising political and intellectual heavy weights drawn from across the political spectrum of the Labour Party.

From Aneurin Bevan, to Hugh Dalton and on to Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin, Clem drew together and harnessed the diverse talents of a team that transformed our country.

That play demonstrated how his authority came not from disciplinary threats or bullying of his colleagues but from his ability to calmly manage every challenge and crisis his government encountered.

Contrast Clem with Francis’s portrayal of the brutal, psychopathic Stalin in his latest play, Vodka with Stalin

The play tells the true story Francis came across whilst he was researching his books on British communism – including his 2004 book Stalin’s British Victims – at the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell Green and met the niece of Rose Cohen.

Movingly it imparts the story of the romance between Rose and Harry Pollitt, the British Communist Party leader, both ardent young communists and naturally, at that time in the late 1920s and 30s, idealistic supporters of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union.

You can’t fail but to become emotionally and physically close to the characters

They part when Rose is recruited into clandestine work for the Communist Party and eventually marries Max Petrovsky, a Russian communist, and they both fall foul of Stalin’s purge.

The conversations over vodka between Harry and Stalin to save Rose and their outcome are at the heart of the play.

As always with Francis’s work, but especially when set in this homely, small upstairs pub/theatre, you can’t fail but to become emotionally and physically close to the characters.

Witnessing Harry struggling to come to terms with the knowledge that everything he had devoted his life to, the dream of a new socialist world, had been torn apart by a paranoid psychopath, was heartrending.

In the current political context, some may misguidedly interpret the play as anti-Russian or anti-socialist. It’s not. The idealism of Harry and Rose is inspiring but the warning is self evident. 

It’s the warning against all dictatorships in whatever form they take. 

Loyalty to a cause can so easily be exploited when all power is passed unchecked into the hands of one person, whose only motivation is power seeking.

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington

Vodka with Stalin
Written by: Francis Beckett
Venue: The Gatehouse Theatre, N6 – running from 27 March until 2 April

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