The Theatreguide.London Review
A Very Expensive Poison
Old Vic Theatre Autumn 2019
As she did in 2009's
Enron, Lucy Prebble here tells a complex true story with absolute
clarity and – in collaboration with director John Crowley –
theatrical energy and inventiveness.
But for all the
Very Expensive Poison can't fully escape the feel of a TV docudrama,
albeit a particularly clever one.
In 2006 Alexander
Russian living in Britain, was murdered by Russian agents using a
tiny amount of Polonium-210, a very radioactive and deadly element.
Litvinenko's widow and her supporters fought for almost a decade to get a full inquiry that identified the killers and concluded that they were working directly for the Russian government, with at least the knowledge and probably the orders of Vladimir Putin.
primarily on a book about the case by Luke Harding, Lucy Prebble
tells the story through a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks. The
outer frame has widow Marina Litvinenko telling us about her campaign
to get the story told.
This involves going back
to her husband's
weeks of slowly dying in a London hospital, where Prebble imagines
him rising from his deathbed to help British detectives investigate
the case, a process that includes retracing his steps through the
city with a geiger counter.
And that story line
looks even further
back as Litvinenko explains to the British cops why the Russians are
out to get him. (An honest secret service agent in a corrupt system,
he had alienated the establishment even before he escaped to the West
and became a gadfly journalist and MI6 'consultant.')
juggles these several stories with ease and clarity, and at one point
is even able to joke about the complexity by having characters from
different timelines bump into each other and apologise.
and director Crowley use all the tools of open theatricality to keep
things moving and always surprising. There are puppets, shadow
puppets, songs, dances and slide shows. Actors pop up in various
parts of the auditorium, and audience members are recruited to play
And yet a lot of this
feels imposed on the material,
rather than growing out of it or being the natural or most effective
way of telling the story.
Vladimir Putin, for
example, appears as a
cynical commentator, punctuating scenes with his pop-up wry
commentary. But the moments when he does this from one part of the
audience or another are no more effective than when he does it from
In one early scene a
character bursts suddenly into song,
and later there is a very funny dance number, but instead of thinking
'Wow, a major truth is being told through this clever device' I
couldn't tell then and can't remember now why they're there.
MyAnna Buring ably carries much of the narrative weight and serves as the moral voice of the play as Marina, taking us sympathetically into a woman who did not choose the role of widow and campaigner but does them justice through sheer determination.
Tom Brooke's Litvinenko
be a little too innocent and na´ve in being so surprised that the
Russian establishment was out to get him. But in the whodunnit scenes
he shows the intelligence and professionalism that allowed the real
Litvinenko to help the cops even as he lay dying.
and the director seem uncertain from minute to minute whether Putin
should be a full-bore Panto villain delighting in his own nastiness
or a Mafia Don, calmly confident in his untouchability.
remember, even vaguely, the 2006 case or the 2016 report of the
investigation, you probably won't learn much that is new from this
But like the best docudramas it puts human faces on the names you may have read about, and effectively combines information and entertainment.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review