If it's Summertime for Stalin in Edinburgh, it must be the Fringe

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The Independent Online

Mel Brooks did it for Hitler. Now Cambridge students are doing it for Stalin. In a distinct echo of Springtime for Hitler, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is to stage An Evening with Joe: Stalin the Musical.

Replete with high-kicking dictator and suspender-clad Red Army generals, the new show is bound to offend with such lyrics as "give genocide a helping hand".

Among the uproarious numbers included in the production are "The Gulag Rag", "Mrs Stalin Regrets", and "A Nightingale Sang in Old Red Square". In another song, a doe-eyed "Uncle Joe" serenades his wife:

"Mrs Stalin, you are my darling."

To which she replies adoringly:

"Joe, you are my beau.

"Cos I've got you and you've got me,

"And we are as happy as a tyrant and his girl can be."

Later, she sings that she'd love to marry him but is worried about his genocidal tendencies. In fact, Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, killed herself.

The musical culminates with a full-blown Moulin Rouge-style dance routine at Stalin's funeral, during which Trotsky returns from the dead to camp it up in drag alongside a high-kicking troupe of generals, state officials and mourners. As they do so, they sing along to a rousing chorus of "Sweet Stalin (I'm in Love Again)" - a spoof of Barry Manilow's kitsch ballad "Sweet Heaven".

The musical - coming in the year of the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death - is the brainchild of history graduate James Stevens, a leading player in Cambridge's Amateur Dramatics Club Theatre. Alumni include the Oscar winners Sir Ian McKellen and Sam Mendes, the comic Griff Rhys Jones and Sir Peter Hall, the former artistic director of the RSC.

Though he concedes his new production will not be to everyone's taste, Stevens insists it was born of a desire to satirise, rather than trivialise, Stalinist Russia. By encouraging the audience to laugh instead of cry, his aim is to place them in a position analogous to that of the misguided Western leaders who were seduced by the despot's avuncular charm.

"The play is meant to be very funny in the beginning, but it does get quite serious," he explained. "It sounds shocking in a way, but people are meant to leave thinking to themselves, 'my God, we've just been laughing at Stalin high-kicking'.

"I actually think there's a lot of contemporary relevance. We are finding out more and more about Stalin that no one other than those who suffered under him was aware of at the time. In a way, it's about looking at the 'spin' that helped him portray himself to the world as cuddly Uncle Joe."

Stevens is all too mindful of the criticism it is likely to attract. "I took a lot of flak from friends, and the Slavic Society at Cambridge were not overly impressed," he said. "But I sat down and talked to them about it and when they actually saw us perform it they thought it was very good."

Stevens also conceded that those who don't take offence are likely to accuse him of ripping off Springtime for Hitler - the musical-within-a-movie from The Producers by Mel Brooks. The show is conceived as a deliberate flop to relieve backers of their cash, but becomes a Broadway hit. Ironically, The Producers was itself turned into a huge theatrical success.

Even so, said Stevens: "You still couldn't get away with An Evening with Adolf. With Stalin, for some reason, you can - and that's the point."

Stalin the Musical, with Michael Hall in the lead role, opens at Edinburgh's trendy Cvenue on Wednesday. It is not the only play about a notorious ogre heading for this year's fringe. Also due to open this week is Lies Have Been Told, a one-man show with RSC actor Philip York as the late Robert Maxwell, in which the Fleet Street tyrant tries to convince his audience he was more sinned against than sinning.

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