It’s been nearly seven years since Lucy Prebble’s last play – 2012’s The Effect – and over 10 since her Olivier-nominated smash-hit Enron made its claim to be the best new play of the century so far. A decade on, and she’s back with A Very Expensive Poison, a complex, kaleidoscopic new work about the assassination of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko.
Litvinenko, a former officer with the Russian secret service, died from polonium poisoning in London in November 2006, in an operation that a subsequent inquiry concluded was probably personally approved by Putin. Prebble’s play about Litvinenko, his life and his death, is based on Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s book of the same name, and runs at the Old Vic until early October.
It’s directed by BAFTA-winner and Tony-nominee John Crowley, and stars Tom Brooke as Litvinenko, MyAnna Buring as his wife Marina, Peter Polycarpou as oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and Reece Shearsmith as Putin.
But can Prebble reproduce the rave reviews she earned with Enron? What does Crowley’s show teach us about Litvinenko? Will this story of polonium poisoning prove popular with the critics?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
Prebble’s play isn’t a straight-forward recreation of Litvinenko’s death. It is, instead, a wildly metatheatrical affair that jumps across genre, time and tone to explore the event and the issues surrounding it. According to Lyn Gardner (Stagedoor), it’s “a bit like going on a rollercoaster ride without any seat belts”.
Some critics think Prebble pulls it off marvellously. It’s “a wonderful one-off” according to Dominic Maxwell (Times ★★★★) “a play of bravura brilliance” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage ★★★★★), and “a bold, resonant piece of political theatre evoking the contradictions of our post-truth world” according to Rachel Halliburton (The Arts Desk ★★★★★).
“Prebble has turned a very serious story into a very silly play,” writes Tim Bano (The Stage ★★★★★). “The play touches genre after genre, constantly twisting itself, always entertaining, and finally becoming its own weird and extraordinary thing: stunningly political and superbly theatrical.”
Not everyone agrees, though. For Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★), “it’s all so arty and overblown, it diminishes the simple, compelling, heart-stopping nature of the abomination”, for Claire Allfree (Metro ★★★) it’s “an odd mix” and for Matt Trueman (Variety) there’s “something schematic” about it all.”
Several critics don’t think it does anything particularly interesting, either. “There’s nothing new or radical about its metatheatrical elements,” points out Rosemary Waugh (Exeunt), while Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★) writes that although the play is “often funny or startling”, he didn’t feel he “learned much beyond the details reported from the public inquiry.”
“It’s hard to care and there’s little to learn,” echoes Trueman, but the naysayers are in the minority. Most critics agree with Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★★): A Very Expensive Poison is “a play that dares to mirror the absurdity of the world – and then push back against it”.
Director John Crowley traverses the worlds of stage and screen. His 2014 film Brooklyn was nominated for three Oscars, and he’s a fairly regular presence in London and New York’s theatre scenes – his most celebrated show the 2003 National Theatre premiere of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. But, can he handle the hectic nature of Prebble’s play?
Some critics think his production is superb. It’s “aesthetically ingenious” and “sure-footed” according to Halliburton and “exemplary” according to Michael Billington (Guardian ★★★★), while Lukowski lauds Crowley for “staying on top of the unceasingly unruly entertainment” and crafting “a strange, funny and frequently exhilarating piece of theatre”.
“Every single department absolutely excels: Tom Scutt’s complex set, unfolding smoothly from a tiny hospital room to a huge laboratory, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s incredible lighting, the Tetris-y music from Paddy Cunneen,” praises Bano. Other critics echo his enthusiasm for Scutt’s set – it’s “ingenious” for Halliburton, and “arresting” for Maxwell.
“Political, engaged theatre of such scope is rare; theatre that presents its case with such flair, power, humour and emotional punch is rarer still,” concludes Crompton, but the metatheatrical mayhem conducted by Crowley isn’t to everyone’s tastes.
“Actors step out of character and involve the audience,” describes Curtis. “There’s a dance routine, a shadow puppet show about the discovery of polonium, and a song from oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Timelines overlap. The inventiveness that worked so well in Prebble’s previous hit Enron tips into tricksiness.”
“I was left craving more sobriety and less vodka-bingey giddiness,” complains Cavendish, while Allfree finds the whole thing “gaudy, morally proselytising and weirdly superficial”.
Brooke and Buring are at the heart of this play, playing Litvinenko and his surviving wife Marina. Both have had success on stage and screen before, with Brooke garnering acclaim recently for his role in Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse. And both are praised again here.
Brooke plays the “seemingly naive but morally inflexible” Litvinenko with “just the right amount of ungainly oddness and implacable rectitude” according to Allfree, while for Halliburton he brings “a dry intensity” to the part, and for Billington he “captures” its “complexity”.
Buring, meanwhile, is “superb” according to Cavendish and “dogged, dignified and devastating” according to Bano. Together, the two are “touching and appealing” as they “delicately create a picture of a real marriage, under stress for all the usual as well as some very unusual reasons,” writes Crompton.
There’s plenty of praise for the supporting cast, too. Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer “make a gobsmackingly inept double act” as Litvinenko’s assassins according to Bano, and Polycarpou is entertaining as billionaire Boris Berezovsky. He “enters doing the robot, and doesn’t tone it down thereafter,” describes Lukowski.
It’s Reece Shearsmith who delights the most, though. His “chillingly cordial” Putin is “a joy” according to Maxwell, while Billington lauds him as “deviously dangerous” and Crompton calls him “wonderful” and “sinister”. Shearsmith is “as perfect as ever”, says Bano.
It’s weird, that’s for sure. Prebble’s play isn’t the straightforward story of Litvinenko’s life you might imagine – it’s an all-singing, all-dancing, serio-comic satire that skips across storylines and genres throughout. And this chaotic, cavorting construct divides the critics – some love it, some are less impressed. Five stars from The Stage, WhatsOnStage and The Arts Desk contrast with three-star ratings from The Telegraph, The Evening Standard and Metro.
Crowley keeps the show on the road convincingly, and there are some sparkling performances – from Brooke, Buring and Shearsmith in particular – but A Very Expensive Poison turns out to be a healthy dose of polonium-laced marmite.