THEATRE REVIEW: A Very Expensive Poison starring Reece Shearsmith at the Old Vic


WHERE? Old Vic RUNTIME: 170 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)

WHEN? 3/9, opens 5/9 and runs to 5/10/19

‘The only thing that’s criminal here is the £4 cost of a programme – and that you have to go outside to pee.’

  • Read on for reasons including how League Of Gentleman star Reece Shearsmith is the comic highlight here

The toilet reference in particular will be all too familiar to regulars at this historic venue. League Of Gentleman star Shearsmith (pictured above) is playing the President who, in the much improved second act here, sits alone in a box in the circle commenting on the action as it unfolds.

His interjections, some of which like the above are so good that the acclaimed Inside No 9 actor/author could have written them himself, are the best things about this unusual take on the story of Alexander Litvinenko.

We last saw Shearsmith on stage as the titularThe Dresser and his Putin-esque President, a mixture of charisma puffed up by both menace and a sense of humour, could not be further removed from that character.

A Very Expensive Poison is a new play written by Lucy Prebble (ENRON, Secret Diary of a Call Girl) based on a book by Guardian journalist Luke Harding which tells the story of Russian defector and former FSB officer Litvinenko who was murdered in London in 2006 in a poisoning linked to Putin.

It’s especially impressive when the cast step out of the spotlight and break the fourth wall, addressing the audience and asking for its opinion.

The relationship between Litvinenko (Tom Brooke, upright and believable) and his wife Marina (MyAnna Buring, warm and prepared to challenge her husband when he wavers) should be the heart and soul of this piece.

But the dancing conclusion to Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere doesn’t move us as much as think it should because there is so much else going on throughout the evening, not least a vaudevillian element featuring giant puppets of Russian politicians that enhances the spectacle but withers the emotional pull of the material.

There is comedy here not least the amateur bumbling of the assassins but, if anything, A Very Expensive Poison feels overthought rather than underdone.

We enjoyed the play, Shearsmith in particular is very funny, but we wondered whether it might have worked better if the visual thrills here had been reined in rather than ramped up.

  • Picture by Marc Brenner via Facebook courtesy Old Vic. Tickets
  • Have you seen this show? Tell us what you thought in the comments below.
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