Imagine, for a moment, that you’re in charge of Stalin’s Daughter – a high-concept, emotionally-wrought play, exploring how it feels to be the child of a notorious dictator. And imagine too that you’re picking an object to represent Stalin: something to sit in the background, ever visible, a constant reminder of the evil your protagonist’s father inflicted on the world. If I’d been the one to make the decision, do you know what I wouldn’t have chosen for that role? I wouldn’t have chosen Mr Potato Head.
Yet bizarrely, incredibly, this play does feature a potato – a real potato – fitted out with plastic boggle-eyes and a bristling comedy moustache. I do understand that there’s intentional levity here, but Stalin’s Daughter also contains a very large number of intensely actorly scenes, and it’s hard to take them seriously when a murderous vegetable is staring at you from the back of the stage. Towards the end – when, without a trace of humour, Stalin ends up in the microwave – maintaining some semblance of professional composure took all the self-discipline I had.
But it’s my duty to talk about more than the potato, however much it may have dominated my experience of the play. Stalin’s Daughter is a highly-fictionalised account of the later life of Svetlana Alliluyeva – who defected from the Soviet Union in 1967, and spent most of her final decade living in Bristol. The Alliluyeva of the play is a deeply troubled figure, re-inventing herself through a series of invented identities, all the while chased by memories of her family and her younger life in Moscow.
There’s a story worth telling here, and the pattern of the monologue – flowing seamlessly from present to past, from reality to imagination – is a promising way of describing it. The transitions are often startling but generally clear, even when the story crosses between the Stalin-era USSR and 1990’s Britain. Sole actor Kirsty Cox does well to guide us through an intricate, lyrical script, which features complex imagined characters and frequent ciphers for figures from Alliluyeva’s early life.
But the whole thing’s delivered with the dial set to 11 – full of exaggerated grins, staccato head-shakes and staring eyes. It’s to Cox’s credit that she isn’t over-acting; each of her moves is perfectly placed, each vocal shift entirely controlled. But the trouble with emphasising everything is that you end up emphasising nothing. When a line like “it starts to rain again” is declaimed as though it’s Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, it grows difficult to recognise the genuinely painful memories which form the play’s true heart.
The style is clearly intentional, and it’s consistently delivered, but it’s far too unsubtle ever to work for me. Contemplative interludes – such as the beautiful image of burning letters floating down into a river – are instantly ruined once the wild-eyed oration returns. I tried as hard as I could to find a way into the piece, but when Alliluyeva began imitating a microwave (“Mmmmmmm, ping! Mmmm, ping!”), I abandoned all hope of redemption. And still, the potato stared.