A true and tragic spy story of the modern age, the audacious murder of Russian intelligence agent turned dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, shocked the world. The deed was carried out using a minuscule amount polonium-210, a radioactive, extremely toxic isotope that can only be produced using a nuclear reactive, therefore making it a very expensive poison.
Lucy Prebble borrows zealously from journalist Luke Harding’s novel, A Very Expensive Poison, for this play by the same name, though it’s not exactly an adaptation. Prebble takes Harding’s meticulously researched details and assembles them into a theatrical mash that leaps from drama to intrigue to romance to musical routines to comedy to absurdism.
It has elements of university revue, Brecht, and perhaps even morality play.
The play opens with Marina Litvinenko (Chloe Schwank) speaking with a lawyer about her chances of getting justice. For what exactly, we aren’t yet told.
The narrative moves to Marina bringing her husband, Alexander Litvinenko (Richard Cox) into a London hospital. He is suffering from a malady that baffles the doctors. We then jump back in time to retrace his backstory and the events leading up to the illness.
It’s all fairly conventional theatre for a little while, a dramatic exposition with occasional oblique humour. Then the cast breaks out into a musical number and dance routine and, by degrees, more abstract elements enter the production.
The overall effect is a bit hit and miss. It takes a while for the audience to really appreciate the deliberate off-beat humour and run with it. Then, just as we settle into the vibe, a character breaks the fourth wall and we need to recalibrate.
Just before the intermission, Putin (Tasha O’Brien) enters as an off-stage narrator/director, directly addressing the audience in a sometimes quite confrontational manner.
The second half is filled with bizarre stage entrances and even more surrealism, though this is interchanged with returns to the dramatic story. Though a little unexpected and confusing at times, these quirks are actually fun. What is less appealing are the sanctimonious monologues and verbatim transcript readings which sometimes feel accusatory towards the audience.
This is an intriguing and ultimately very moving story performed by a capable troupe of actors (and singers and dancers). It could be a little tighter but it is a worthwhile theatrical experience.