Writer: David Lane
Director: Ed Viney
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
Miss Phyllis Richards (retired spinster), settled in Clifton on the advice of a holistic therapist after years of overseas aid work. She volunteers at Oxfam twice a week, has takeaways on Thursdays and is a regular visitor to the local library. Miss Phyllis Richards was once Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter.
David Lane’s original, often poetic play is a powerful depiction of the tormented mind of a woman trying to escape the trauma of her past. It feels at times more like a novella than a play: Svetlana (Kirsty Cox) narrates her thoughts and memories alone on the stage, and the audience’s imagination fills in the images and scenes she describes. The story shifts dizzyingly between present-day Bristol and Stalinist Russia: whenever Svetlana attempts to forge a new identity, a casual remark or random image triggers flashbacks to her childhood in “Mother Russia”.
Cox has a storyteller’s intonation and expression that are perfect for the demanding script. Her performance is assured and moving as she depicts the beauty of summer sun and ripe mangoes bringing tears to Svetlana’s eyes. She burns with hatred describing the feeling of being born with Stalin’s fingers already piercing into her brain as if it were a ripe peach; she spits rage remembering him forcing her to dance a Polka for members of the KGB while her mother committed suicide.
The set is compact and simple: a bookcase and chair against a grey backdrop topped with tower block windows that could be in Bristol or Russia, adding to the production’s disconnected tone. While the story touches on the lives of real people – Svetlana’s children, uncles and aunts make fleeting appearances – it is far from a biographical account of the real Alliluyeva, whose defection from Russia was to the USA and widely publicised in American propaganda during the Cold War.
Instead, Lane’s script imagines the person behind the name, what it really feels like to be Stalin’s daughter. The threat of inherited identity lurks in the figure of Lenka, a six-year-old girl in a pristine beige dress who follows Svetlana like a shadow. Svetlana subjects this impossibly perfect child to what seems astonishing cruelty, cold and unflinching as she damages that “perfect little body”. It is only when we learn who Lenka really is that the nature of Stalin’s iron grip on his daughter becomes clear.
Watching Cox perform is like being privy to someone else’s nightmare – she never pauses, delivering memory after memory with an oppressive intensity, and closing our eyes will not make the story go away because the images are all in our own imagination. The production will not appeal to everyone: it demands a great deal from its audience and at times pushes beyond the limits of our willingness to suspend disbelief, as Svetlana retreats further into her mind than we are able to follow.
I leave the performance haunted by the ghosts of characters no less real outside of the theatre than they were inside, and while it is not a comfortable experience, it is impossible not to feel that I have witnessed something important. From the muted but lengthy applause of the Bike Shed audience, I think they feel the same.
Runsuntil2nd May 2015 as part of a national tour | Photo:Zuleika Henry