by Rachel Beaumont

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Super-slick: A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic

A Very Expensive Poison
The Old Vic
Circle E31, £12
11 September 2019
Old Vic page

A Very Expensive Poison is the first of Lucy Prebble’s plays I’ve seen, and it surpassed my expectations in its establishment of extravagant theatricality within a real-life drama, and vice versa.

She has the perfect subject for it in the conspiracy to murder Litvenenko. Reece Shearsmith can have a whale of a time as a cartoonish Putin, and the means of Litvenenko’s death fully qualify as ghoulishly absurd. But there is always a serious grounding to pull back to, not just the murder but a questioning of the relationship between the British and Russian states.

This is a get-out-of-jail-free card that enables Prebble and the superbly talented creative team (I’ll call out director John Crowley and designer Tom Scutt, but the production was super-slick in every sense) to laugh with impunity. Whenever I thought, ‘Well, isn’t this some anti-Russian propaganda’, they were able to defuse my criticism by making the same comment themselves, except through a deft joke that questions the British people’s complicity and indifference.

It’s all extremely skilful, very entertaining, and admirably imaginative – showing, with a little less seriousness than the Almeida’s The Doctor, that the scope of new theatre to stretch the medium is broad and multicoloured.

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