Reviewed by Lauren Donikian
Written by Lucy Prebble, A Very Expensive Poison tells the story of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian Spy that is assassinated in broad daylight. Based on Luke Harding’s book of the same name, this real story introduces us to Litvinenko, his family, and the role he played in Russia that led to his untimely death. The audience follows his wife Marina who is searching for justice, whilst also seeing Litvinenko solve his own death. Using flashbacks, song and dance the audience are introduced to the characters, educated about Russia and its history, and shown what love for your family will make you do.
Upon entry into the theatre the set is a green hued metal design, with cut out arches, staggered stairs, and different level platforms. As it is so bare, the ensemble plays a huge part in creating the world. Whether they are walking around the stage hurriedly representing a busy London day in identical trench coats and umbrellas, or dressing the stage with red tables and chairs, they always move with purpose.
There are multiple costume changes, as members of the ensemble play a variety of characters with just a few members of the cast playing the same characters all the way through. Richard Cox plays a mild-mannered Litvinenko who is balanced, and always certain of his character’s point of view. His Russian accent is present and natural throughout the performance. There is nothing that seems forced and that speaks to the rapport that he shares with Chloe Schwank who plays his wife Marina. Schwank’s accent is also on point, there is a deep understanding of her character as she portrays Marina as strong with a deep sadness, but always proud. Tasha O’Brien plays the divisive role of Putin. Her comedic timing and physical comedy make her a standout in this performance. She is cheeky, sassy and at times downright terrifying. The first of the cast to break the fourth wall O’Brien addresses the audience in a monologue that is as heartbreaking as it is thought provoking. There was some audience participation throughout the 180-minute play, and the cast were gentle and polite with the members that took part. I was impressed with the use of the space; the stairs on both aisles were used and there was an entrance made by Diego Retamales through the window of the lighting and audio box. Via a ladder. It was totally unnecessary, but very funny.
Director Margaret Thanos is to be commended for the level of physical comedy achieved in this performance, especially the chase between the bad guys and the ensemble. Whilst some of the dance numbers weren’t as tightly choreographed, the throwing of the red cups in some of the final scenes helped to balance that out. It seemed that there were endless ways to use the set and Thanos used them all.
I’m not going to lie; I had no idea what to expect going in to see this performance. I am not big on politics, and normally like to escape to a world that doesn’t reflect the one we are currently living in when going to the theatre. However, this show is funny. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments that the truth hits hard and you are enraged and uncomfortable, but then there will be some physical comedy that will shift your focus. It is easy to follow, smart, and fact filled. If you like your politics with a side of humor A Very Expensive Poison is the show for you.
Image Credit: Bob Seary