A Very Expensive Poison

Review - Lucy Prebble's A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

"In a way, it's an anti-thriller. But I must never ever say that," says playwright Lucy Prebble in a programme note about her new, expansive and intriguing play A Very Expensive Poison, based on Guardian journalist Luke Harding's 2018 book about the Russian state-sanctioned 2006 murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, by then a British citizen living in London.

Prebble's play similarly unpacks the often-unsayable in its dogged pursuit of revealing the truth of how he came to die, poisoned by a tea laced with Polonium-210, that was served to him by two visiting Russian agents.

Given that this outcome is known before you even enter the theatre, Prebble is right: it's an anti-thriller. But it is a play that is frequently thrilling in its audacity, poignancy  and the outright theatricality of its telling

Prebble's prior hit play Enron, originally premiered in 2009, was a similarly fluid and dazzling portrait of the real-life events behind the collapse of the Texas-based energy company. Prebble has an amazing ability to translate true stories into compellingly alive theatrical experiences.

She does so by not just staging it as a documentary, but as a jumble of impressionistic scenes that, in the warmth of Tom Brooke's performance as the afflicted Alexander and MyAnna Buring as his loyal wife Marina, dogged in her pursuit of holding his murderers to account, also establishes the human dimensions of a story with massive political repercussions. As murders like that of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul Saudi consulate last October continue to show, the instructions come from the highest sources.

Prebble boldly goes for broke, portraying Vladimir Putin as a joke figure who pops up in the stage boxes to offer commentary on the cost of the Old Vic's theatre programmes and the locations of its temporary loos.  

But in director John Crowley's layered and playful production there's a serious point amongst all the teasing: murder is no laughing matter.  

A large cast animates a wide range of supporting characters, with stand-outs from Michael Shaeffer and Lloyd Hutchinson as a pair of clumsy assassins, Peter Polycarpou as a Russian oligarch, and Gavin Spokes as an investigating British police officer.  

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

A Very Expensive Poison tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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