Review – A Very Expensive Poison, Old Vic

Wednesday 4 September 2019

As Phil joined the queue to get into the Old Vic he engaged in a discussion with two ladies in front of him about whether they were in the queue for the loos or the theatre. We explained it was the correct queue for the stalls.

“Are you regular?” asked one. “That’s a bit personal” replied Phil. “Oh, no” said she, realising the ambiguity “I meant regular theatregoers”. Much hilarity ensued.

A Very Expensive Poison is not about people’s addiction to theatre. But with seats for this production costing up to £150 for the”charitable package”(add your own gag) and a top price of £140 for “standard stalls” without a whiff of a package for the Old Vic’s next production Lungs, it might as well be.

This is Lucy Prebble‘s take on Luke Harding’s book about the polonium-210 poisoning of former Russian FSB secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko.

Serious stuff, yes? Well no, apparently not. Prebble’s risky theatricalisation takes her Enron route of jokey, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink rag bag of playful ideas, shakes it all up and hopes some of it lands.

That’s not to say that some of it doesn’t land. The basic, fascinating and horrific story is all in there, some of her ideas and gags are splendid and occasionally very funny. It would be hard to show the ineptness of the murderers without comedy however inadvertent. Still, they did get their job done in the end.

Tonally it’s all over the place. It starts fairly conventionally as we see Litvinenko (Tom Brooke) and his wife Marina (MyAnna Buring) in an early scene visiting a hospital when he first feels unwell before going back to their days in Russia and how he became a target of the Russian state. As John Crowley‘s production moves away from its conventional telling and becomes scrappier this is matched by deconstructed sometimes unattractive visuals. Tom Scutt’s sets get stripped away and the fourth wall isn’t so much broken as smashed up and thoroughly stamped on.

Reece Shearsmith plays Reece Shearsmith playing Putin. Apparently. Hard to tell. A mad, tetchy Act 2 commentator on the action and a whinge about theatre in general as he sits in the Old Vics’s boxes. Shearsmith reminds us that we come to the theatre largely to be entertained, presumably an attempt to counter accusations of flippancy. Although some of this is quite funny, Phil had had several Once Upon A Time in Hollywood moments and had to keep reminding himself that despite all this larkish tomfoolery someone did actually die. For the record Marina Litvinenko is on board and also can be seen in conversation with Luke Harding at the Vic so presumably she’s ok with the way their story is handled.

There’s a gorgeously attractive silhouette presentation explaining the history of polonium at the start of Act 2, some puppetry (Peter Polycarpou), some singing (Peter Polycarpou) and some dance (Peter Polycarpou). Gavin Spokes is listed as playing plays DI Hyatt/Man with Stick. There’s more radiation gags than you can shake a Man with a stick at. When a phone went off in someone’s handbag behind Phil he genuinely thought it might be part of the show.

The play just about pulls itself together at the end as things get more serious when Marina is left alone on the stage and steps off it to hand cards out to be read by punters sitting on the ends of rows in the front stalls. One of the funniest moments occurred as an audience member struggled to pronounce a Russian name. Kind of killed the moment really.



One Response to “Review – A Very Expensive Poison, Old Vic”

  1. Margarita Says:

    I can’t remember which Marx Brothers film has Groucho turn to the camera and say ‘This is the best gag in the picture’.

    If Lucy Prebble had known it I’m sure she would have used it in POISON.

    I found this luxurious grade production to be in very poor taste.The relentless indulgence of production values has inflated a simple story to an exercise in ….. self indulgence.

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