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‘A Very Expensive Poison’ review – Litvinenko murder exposed in unusual thriller

Lucy Prebble’s adaptation blows open the Russian scandal to reveal truth, love and devastation – ★★★★

Prebble’s take on Luke Harding’s 2016 book turns a public inquiry into hard-hitting, emotive theatre. With the audience as acknowledged spectators, Marina Litvinenko (MyAnna Buring) speaks truth to power with passion, and puts President Putin in the box.

We follow the case with DI Hyatt as Marina breaks the fourth wall to detail the events. Other characters follow suit, and it soon becomes a helpful device to consolidate the complex plot, with a professor appearing on stage to give us a chemistry lecture on polonium. It does well to keep us following along with a convoluted thriller, although the Russian authorities’ many abbreviations still prove a bit too complex.

In the second act, it gets all the more confusing – sort of. Reece Shearsmith is amusing as the unenthused but menacing Putin, interjecting throughout the performance in one of the theatre’s boxes to distort the narrative. It’s a fascinating battle between disinformation and truth, which clearly isn’t without its casualties – namely Litvinenko (Bodyguard‘s Tom Brooke).

The incredible farce behind the murder itself is emphasised unashamedly, with the two assassins becoming a hapless slapstick duo and the stage, at one point, being adorned by a golden phallus. It is a clever reference to Russia using nonsense and trolling as a distraction technique, but when this extends to oligarch Boris Berezovsky singing about how great London is, the absurdism loses its impact.

Despite its flaws, the main focus of A Very Expensive Poison still breaks through the politics and the farce with moving results. We all remember the bedside photo of Alexander and discussion of Russia’s involvement, but much like most political conversations, we show a disregard for the personal. Here, Brooke and Buring show us the special Litvinenko relationship with striking rawness. We see the humanity within a tale of barbarism, the logical within the nonsensical and the truth within the deceit.

A Very Expensive Poison is now playing at the The Old Vic Theatre until 5 October.


Production Images: Marc Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch A Very Expensive Poison for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.

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