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A Very Expensive Poison review at Old Vic, London – ‘masterfully messy and utterly unique’

MyAnna Buring and Tom Brooke in A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

Lucy Prebble has turned a very serious story into a very silly play. In 2016, the Guardian’s Luke Harding wrote a book about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and the subsequent inquiry that ruled it was “probably approved” by Vladimir Putin.

But this isn’t a piece of journalism shoved onstage. It’s not a political play in any conventional sense. Instead, she and director John Crowley have created an utterly unique piece of theatre that flitters through all the ways you can present truth and tell stories, and tries to understand the overlap between the two.

Tom Brooke’s shy, principled Litvinenko, a former FSB detective, investigates his own murder (which he pretty much did as he died). Meanwhile the influence of Reece Shearsmith’s cartoonishly villainous Putin on proceedings increases until he can direct scenes and talk to the audience – even joking about the Old Vic’s temporary loos. He attempts to screen, or alter the truth of the story. That’s the play in its barest form.

But what’s amazing is how in every scene Prebble ignores all the basic rules of playwriting. Characters stand at the front of the stage for long chunks of exposition. Genre never settles. There are random dance scenes, puppets, shadowplay. But the skill with which she breaks those rules is profuse. When scenes sound like badly translated Chekhov, we know it’s deliberate; clumsiness made virtue. Every time there’s a funny joke, Prebble hits the other extreme instantly – introducing something horrific, something that undermines what came moments before.

Tom Brooke and Peter Polycarpou in A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

The play goes all-out on a Russian offensive. It bursts with brash men, like Peter Polycarpou’s Boris Berezovsky, swaggering like only an oligarch can. He’s so larger than life that he accidentally breaks into song. They’re boozers, corrupt, shady, showing us how toxic masculinity gone mad can have such grief-ridden roots and such dire results.

While its essence is a love story between Marina Litvinenko – who campaigned relentlessly for an inquiry into her husband’s death – and Alexander, the normality of their life is jammed next to the absurdity of the murder plot. No wonder Crowley’s production is so brash and grotesque when someone is trying to poison Litvinenko’s sushi.

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.

Shearsmith is as perfect as ever, while Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer make a gobsmackingly inept double act as the spies that tried three times to kill Litvinenko. But at the centre is MyAnna Buring’s Marina: dogged, dignified, and devastating.

There’s a thrilling spy story that courses through the play, even as it’s suppressed by devices, by different theatrical forms and the play’s nervous self-reference. What’s astonishing is how Prebble tells that spy story at the same time as she finds humanity and brings whole countries to the dock.

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. The point is the extremes; the best and worst the world can offer, from individual people to entire rotten nations.

Masterfully messy meta-thriller about the Litvinenko poisoning

Production Information

A Very Expensive Poison
Old Vic
August 20, 2019
October 5, 2019
Press night
September 5, 2019
Lucy Prebble
Paddy Cunneen
John Crowley
Aletta Collins
Tom Scutt
Mimi Jordan Sherin
Paul Arditti
Tom Scutt
Ewan Jones Morris
Cast includes
Thomas Arnold, Tom Brooke, MyAnna Buring, Callum Coates, Marc Graham, Amanda Hadingue, Yasmine Holness-Dove, Lloyd Hutchinson, Robyn Moore, Peter Polycarpou, Sarah Seggari, Michael Shaeffer, Reece Shearsmith, Gavin Spokes, Bea Svistunenko
Old Vic
Running time
2hrs 45mins