Review: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate, Donmar Warehouse - family drama that hits a nerve
Review: Hansard, National Theatre - exceptionally witty, acidic and punchy drama

Review: A Very Expensive Poison, Old Vic - feeling conflicted about this

I haven't felt this conflicted about a play for a long time.

A Very Expensive Poison running times

Lucy Prebble's' new work is based on a book by Luke Harding about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.

The play opens with Marina Litvinenko (MyAnna Buring) talking to a lawyer about getting justice for her husband in the face of a British Government reluctant to damage diplomatic relations with Russia.

We then jump back to when Alexander (Tom Brooke) first got sick, then back again further to his life in Russia. It threads together how the Russian ended up as a British citizen, a target for the KGB and the investigation into his poisoning

Gripping yarn

It's a gripping yarn but where I'm conflicted is in different styles of storytelling employed.

By turns, it is an edge of the seat thriller, witty satire and a Vaudevillian style farce and is the latter which sits uncomfortably.

The fact is a man died a prolonged, drawn-out unpleasant death in a state-sponsored assassination but many of the Russians of the play are presented as a mixture of 'Carry on the KGB'  and an Austin Powers movie villain.

Bloated and uneven pace

In adding in more outlandish and colourful moments it bloats the play, ruins the pace and demeans the seriousness of the subject.

The play starts off seemingly as a factual drama and ends as a factual drama, indeed the actors come out of character to talk about the people they have portrayed but in between, we have puppets, songs and dances.

Such tactics worked with Enron, Lucy Prebble's West End hit and Broadway transfer, but that was a very dry technical subject and so it injected colour and levity.

The good and bad

I loved the drama of A Very Expensive Poison - it's a fascinating story - and when it is at its best it is laced with wit and biting satire but the Vaudevillian aspects just didn't work for me.

When I saw it, it was nearly 3 hours long but given it's got a long preview period it will undoubtedly tighten up and, who knows, maybe they will make some cuts.

If the running time reduces dramatically then I may revisit to see if it works better because there was stuff in it I really liked. 

A Very Expensive Poison is at the Old Vic until 5 October.

PS I've had conversations with fellow theatre fans who had similar reservations but equally @polyg, whose opinion I respect, loved it so perhaps it's one of those marmite plays.

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