A Very Expensive Poison (Old Vic)

Please note that A Very Expensive Poison is currently in previews.

Lucy Prebble’s play Enron was one of my favourite stage shows of the first decade of the 21st century, a vibrant and original take on a period of financial turmoil. Now she has turned her attention to the story of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with a radioactive substance in 2006 London, most likely on the orders of the Russian state in which he had served as a “detective”.

A Very Expensive Poison, inspired by the book of the same name by Luke Harding has become a very expensive production, with a set based on a lightbox structure which contracts, expands, and changes scene and focus. It has also become a very long show, currently running at around three hours, which not only milks every single cliche around the Western view of the Russians, but also slows the pace of the plot right down to a painful crawl.

MyAnna Buring and Tom Brooke in A Very Expensive Poison

A strong opening scene, with Marina Litvinetko meeting her lawyer and finding the death of her husband is not being properly investigated, gives way quickly to a farcical approach which seems to lose sight of the fact that a man was left to die, horribly, because of a government need to eliminate him.

Some scenes are similar to those you would see in a sitcom, with the father of Litvinenko owing more to Alf Garnett than Stalin (and even Alexander himself having more than a touch of Rodney in Only Fools and Horses). There are oversized puppets of the Spitting Image type, and although Vladimir Putin/”The President” appears, he is sadly reduced to a personality that lacks real menace.

With a judicious trim in length, and a switch in focus to really develop the investigation into Litvinenko’s previous life in Russia and the events which led to his murder, this would be a solid thriller; or perhaps if Prebble wished to take this wholly down the black comedy route she should think carefully about the impact of the serious speeches about Chechnyan conflict and the Moscow theatre massacre in a scenario played for laughs.

I found A Very Expensive Poison a confused production which doesn’t quite know how to present itself. There are some interesting performances – MyAnna Buring catches the quiet desperation of the wife seeking answers, Reece Shearsmith has an undertone of steel as Putin which needs to be teased out more fully, Lloyd Hutchinson impresses in a range of roles including poisoning suspect Kotvun, and Gavin Spokes does his best as the detective who doesn’t comprehend the complexity of his case – but these are small compensations in a production which currently carries a fair amount of bloat.

A Very Expensive Poison is directed by John Crowley and continues in previews until the 7 September, closing on the 8 October. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.