I would love to have been in the room when playwright Lucy Prebble pitched her new show, A Very Expensive Poison, to The Old Vic. ‘Yeah, it’s a big political play about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and what events like that teach us about the truth, justice and politics, but also it has a couple of musical numbers, some puppets and a massive gold penis’. An easy sell this perhaps was not.
Thankfully, though, the OV was buying and it opens Artistic Director Matthew Warchus’ fifth season in charge (and where has that time gone by the way) this week.
The first thing to say about A Very Expensive Poison is that if you’re looking for a taut political thriller or a James Graham-esque satire then you’re going to be disappointed. It is neither of those things, though it includes elements of both. Neither is it a polemic, though it has polemical scenes and speeches. It’s also not a comedy, a musical, a puppet show, immersive or verbatim, though bits of it are all of those things. It’s exact form is hard to pin down succinctly, as I’m very effectively proving, but as an overall package it is highly effective.
It’s approach to its weighty and serious subject matter is bold. Prebble has no interest in making a documentary and so has gone off in entirely her own direction. Thus the play is serious when it wants to be and sad when it wants to be but it’s also funny, silly and occasionally downright bizarre. Which is also true of the story it’s telling, of course. Nothing that happens in this play is an accident. The structure of the play lends itself to this perfectly, the idea being that the characters are telling the audience (and the police) their story directly, physically stepping out of the set and changing accents to narrate their own lives - and deaths. A lot of the play is direct address to the audience, which I suspect will prove a bit Marmite but I thought was really effective. For a play which is ultimately about a search for truth, it’s very powerful to have key characters’ truths delivered directly to the audience with no interlocutors whatsoever. Equally, in a play which is also about the relationship between the truth and power, it’s very impactful to hear the most powerful character on stage, The President, trying to discredit that truth. That he does much of this from a seat in the audience is really clever, doubly so since he sits in the equivalent seat that Stadler and Waldorf occupy in The Muppet Show!
Form and approach aside, Prebble’s actual writing is also fantastic. At it’s most basic, it’s a brilliant telling of a complex and ridiculous story; no huge chunks of exposition, just great narrative drive. It doesn’t shy away at all from the horrid realities of the story either. This is a seriously political, punchy piece. At the same time though, Prebble is evidently clear that it’s also a love story. The Litvinenkos, both Alexander and, especially, Marina, are beautifully written and force the piece on perfectly. It is also properly laugh out loud funny, but never in a way that feels forced or insensitive. The changes of gear between funny and really not funny at all keep the audience on their toes wonderfully, especially given many of the zingiest one liners are given to The President. A lovely illustration of what charisma and comic timing can hide in a politician WHICH DOESN’T FEEL RELEVANT TO THE UK RIGHT NOW AT ALL OBVIOUSLY.
Director John Crowley’s nimble and knowing production is a great match for Prebble’s innovative play. Crowley is clearly all in for every single one of this show’s eccentricities and has marshalled them all into something that feels entirely naturally bonkers rather than desperately trying to be provocative bonkers. Given those elements include various puppets and a giant gold cock (not the chicken type) I find that impressive. Designer Tom Scutt makes it look fantastic, his ‘step in, step out’ box sets gelling perfectly into the structural set up of the piece. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting helps on this front too. The occasional use of UV is a great touch. I can’t claim to remember much of Paddy Cuneen’s music after the event - there’s a lot to process in this one guys - but his songs fit perfectly into proceedings. I didn’t know I needed Peter Polycarpou as a singing, puppet wielding Russian oligarch in my life and yet here we are.
In some ways, the play is so good and the production so innovative that the actual actors struggle to get that much of a look in. Which isn’t to say they’re bad, far from it, I just don’t think the acting is what most people will leave the theatre talking about. We certainly didn’t. Perhaps the exception to this is the brilliant Reece Shearsmith who is an absolute joy of a piece of casting genius as The President: charismatic, very funny, bitchy AF and of course absolutely terrifying. To be clear, in terms of the plot The President is obviously Vladimir Putin but that’s not how he’s played (or styled, or voiced) which is a great decision. Reece Shearsmith as a caricature Putin probably wouldn’t have been that interesting, whereas this freer drawn version really is. MyAnna Buring is wonderfully touching as Marina Litvinenko too whilst Tom Brooke is a sympathetic but just ever so slightly morally ambiguous Alexander. There’s some great comedy work on display, especially from Lloyd Hutchinson as the more inept of the two inept assassins and the aforementioned Peter Polycarpou as Boris Bereszovsky, song and dance man.
A Very Expensive Poison is one of the boldest, most imaginative and most urgent pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a while. It’s not for everyone, I rather suspect, but if you go in with an open mind and curiosity you will love it. You should at least hang around until the beginning of act two to hear the best joke written about The Old Vic ever performed in The Old Vic...
A Very Expensive Poison is at The Old Vic until 5th October.
I sat in my usual OV seat, Lilian Baylis circle A4, and paid £20. Still one of the best value seats in London theatre.