A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic
Alexander Litvinenko. A man whose name you almost definitely know, a life you probably don’t. Adapting Luke Harding’s book of the same name, Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison goes some way to rectifying that, in a production that gets noisier the more that certain forces want the facts to be obscured.
In, oddly, one of the more surprising aspects of the play, things start pretty calmly. Marina (MyAnna Buring), Alexander’s widow, retells the story of her husband’s hospitalisation – the writhing pain, the legions of stumped doctors, the gradual seeping out of secrets. It’s all quite plain – at the time, worryingly so – a fairly down-the-middle staging of a real-life event.
Except, it’s doing more than that. Prebble and director John Crowley are carefully introducing the metatheatrical tools they will employ with more bombast later on. Everything takes place in Tom Scutt’s ever-changing memory box, a space Marina, and then others, step out of to disrupt the timeline – that is until the boundaries start to fade and other voices make themselves heard. Reece Shearsmith is there from the off, anonymous at first, a creepy little presence that soon beings to grow.
The first section of the play – really, up until Alexander (Tom Brooke) starts explaining his history to the police, in the framing device within a framing device – isn’t the most thrilling. In hindsight, however, it nicely seeds what is to come.
And boy howdy does A Very Expensive Poison contain a lot. Acknowledging that stories are a malleable, exploitable method through which to seek justice, Prebble and Crowley dig deep into the toolbox only hinted at in the first half an hour. Songs, dance numbers, terrifyingly large puppets and off-stage hijinks. A taste of what the production busts out as it tries to make sense of the tragic madness of Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in 2006, and what it means for us now, here in 2019.
The irreverence is kept in check by the central performances. Buring handles most of the exposition and does so in a way that remains intimate. Brooke, meanwhile, makes a man who is very serious and incredibly principled almost goofy in his sweetness towards his family. Their warmth as a couple acts as a tender, doomed guide throughout the calamity.
As for Shearsmith, he is chilling. Of course, he is also typically silly, slimy and petulant, especially once he adds his dictator’s commentary in the second act, like the Old Vic’s own Statler (or Waldorf). But his president is allowed one moment of pure rage towards that end that causes the room to hold its breath. The essence of Russia’s leader, rather than an impression.
Yes, some bits of the show work better than others – that’s going to happen in a production that borders on a revue in places. But, God, A Very Expensive Poison is ambitious and out-there and upsetting in all the best ways.
Photo: Marc Brenner
A Very Expensive Poison is at the Old Vic from 20th August until 5th October 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.