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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Very Expensive Poison
Old Vic Theatre   Autumn 2019

As she did in 2009's Enron, Lucy Prebble here tells a complex true story with absolute clarity and – in collaboration with director John Crowley – theatrical energy and inventiveness.

But for all the razzle-dazzle, A Very Expensive Poison can't fully escape the feel of a TV docudrama, albeit a particularly clever one.

In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian living in Britain, was murdered by Russian agents using a tiny amount of Polonium-210, a very radioactive and deadly element.

Litvinenko's widow and her supporters fought for almost a decade to get a full inquiry that identified the killers and concluded that they were working directly for the Russian government, with at least the knowledge and probably the orders of Vladimir Putin.

Drawing primarily on a book about the case by Luke Harding, Lucy Prebble tells the story through a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks. The outer frame has widow Marina Litvinenko telling us about her campaign to get the story told.

This involves going back to her husband's weeks of slowly dying in a London hospital, where Prebble imagines him rising from his deathbed to help British detectives investigate the case, a process that includes retracing his steps through the city with a geiger counter.

And that story line looks even further back as Litvinenko explains to the British cops why the Russians are out to get him. (An honest secret service agent in a corrupt system, he had alienated the establishment even before he escaped to the West and became a gadfly journalist and MI6 'consultant.')

Lucy Prebble juggles these several stories with ease and clarity, and at one point is even able to joke about the complexity by having characters from different timelines bump into each other and apologise.

Meanwhile she and director Crowley use all the tools of open theatricality to keep things moving and always surprising. There are puppets, shadow puppets, songs, dances and slide shows. Actors pop up in various parts of the auditorium, and audience members are recruited to play small parts.

And yet a lot of this feels imposed on the material, rather than growing out of it or being the natural or most effective way of telling the story.

Vladimir Putin, for example, appears as a cynical commentator, punctuating scenes with his pop-up wry commentary. But the moments when he does this from one part of the audience or another are no more effective than when he does it from onstage.

In one early scene a character bursts suddenly into song, and later there is a very funny dance number, but instead of thinking 'Wow, a major truth is being told through this clever device' I couldn't tell then and can't remember now why they're there.

MyAnna Buring ably carries much of the narrative weight and serves as the moral voice of the play as Marina, taking us sympathetically into a woman who did not choose the role of widow and campaigner but does them justice through sheer determination.

Tom Brooke's Litvinenko may be a little too innocent and na´ve in being so surprised that the Russian establishment was out to get him. But in the whodunnit scenes he shows the intelligence and professionalism that allowed the real Litvinenko to help the cops even as he lay dying.

Reece Shearsmith and the director seem uncertain from minute to minute whether Putin should be a full-bore Panto villain delighting in his own nastiness or a Mafia Don, calmly confident in his untouchability.

If you remember, even vaguely, the 2006 case or the 2016 report of the investigation, you probably won't learn much that is new from this staging.

But like the best docudramas it puts human faces on the names you may have read about, and effectively combines information and entertainment.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  A Very Expensive Poison - Old Vic Theatre 2019
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