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Theatre Review Trivial pursuit

A play on the Litvinenko poisoning entertains but offers little fresh insight, says MARY CONWAY

A Very Expensive Poison
Old Vic, London

AS DRAMA, the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko by the radioactive substance polonium-210 in 2006 is bound to draw the crowds.

The case was disturbing, not just because of the pain and terror for the individual but because it exposed a destabilising brand of international politics that impacts on all.

Writer Lucy Prebble, as in her earlier play Enron, again tackles a theme of huge public fascination and enormous complexity and the clarity of the story owes much of its detail to Luke Harding who wrote a book on the affair.

Litvinenko (Tom Brooke), having fled to Britain after challenging the criminal connections of Vladimir Putin’s government, is hunted down and eradicated but only after his dying image has covered the front pages and etched itself on the minds of the world at large.

In the first half the story is told mainly by Litvinenko’s wife Marina (MyAnna Buring) who struggles, first for effective treatment for her husband, and then for justice. But after the interval matters dissolve into theatrical shenanigans and a bit of a laugh.

And there’s the problem — new insights are in short supply. We’re encouraged to laugh at the assassins and make fun of Putin, an easy target, but as the play meanders from scene to scene and plunders theatrical style for anything to induce surprise, we’re left with the same old precepts.

Putin is a slippery charmer with criminal connections. Litvinenko was a little guy out of his depth. The British government is all at sea.

A greater play would find a greater meaning and while the second half particularly entertains, there is a nervousness about a production which deploys everything from Spitting Image-style puppetry to shadow play, musical comedy to farce and realism to direct communication with the audience to keep the attention from flagging.  

Director John Crowley clearly enjoys himself and conjures great moments of comedy, not least from Reece Shearsmith as Britain’s sudden dubious ally Putin.

Tom Scutt has a ball with his parade of sets and there are telling moments, not least the stark reminder that Russia suffered more losses in WWII than all the other allies put together.

But it’s the theme of this play that carries it, not the shifting tone and style which ultimately trivialises and turns what should be a great idea into something of a dog’s breakfast.

Runs until October 5, box office: oldvictheatre.com.

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