FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by John Crowley, the set and costumes by Tom Scutt are thrillingly fluid. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound with Paddy Cunneen’s composition (a mix of Russian and urban evocation) make it seamless and crisp. Aletta Collins’ chorography shows you how much of Prebble’s exuberance has returned here and reinforces the comedy. Ewan Jones Morris’ video jump-cuts the years. Penny Dyer’s dialect pinpoints the different ways Russians sound to each other and us. Bret Yount directs fights.
‘I shouldn’t dance. We’re afraid in that case you’ll have a fall.’ Auden’s ‘The Witnesses’ with its two hoods seem an undersong in A Very Expensive Poison, Lucy Prebble’s balletic, delicate deadly inquisition on the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the detective who solves his own murder by radioactive Polonium 210, only available from one reactor. But it’s squarely Marina Litvinenko’s story too; we see it through her. And Prebble sees to it it’s the hoods that have a fall.
There’s always a dance in Prebble’s mature work and after 2012’s intimate The Effect it’s exhilarating to see her return to the daring of Enron of 11 years ago.
Here there’s all sorts. Many of them executed by Peter Polycarpu’s exuberant monster Boris Bereszovsky, the billionaire club-frequenting plutocrat whom Litvinenko’s assigned to mind, then kill. His refusal sets in chain run-ins with the new Russian authorities and with the head of the FSB (incorporating the KGB).
And you’ll know him, Vladimir. Later the President. Reece Shearsmith obligingly appears to give his take on our liberal misunderstanding. He often appears on a balcony, a voice from nowhere, downstage centre at the edge of a red carpet to tell us to go home after drinks in the interval, then berate us if we return. No escaping him.
It’s part of Prebble’s exuberant interaction with audience: if you’re in the front row you might be clambered over; you’re not safe in the circle and the stalls hosts a whoosh of running gags. Onstage too there’s a moment when giant puppets of Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yaltsin pop up and watch protests on TV.
Vladimir might wish to vanish Tom Brooke’s Litvinenko, and MyAnna Buring’s Marina. But they dance, thrice; it’s life-affirming in its vulnerability. Alone or with Russian friends they speak in English accents. When with Brits, they’re accented. Penny Dyer’s dialect pinpoints the different ways Russians sound to each other and us.
Brooke’s understated provincial Vorozneh accent contrasts with Buring’s sassy metropolitan. It defines the heart of Litvinenko’s dogged, uncompromising stance, down to calling a conference as spokesperson for disaffected FSB colleagues on a soon-suppressed TV station. Even escape with Berszovsky’s help doesn’t silence Litvinenko, till it does.
Buring’s loving, exasperated, ultimately defiant traversal is movingly done, particularly when after that final image of Litvinenko on his deathbed is wheeled out she breaks down.
It’s the couple’s integrity that’s so moving; as events whoosh backwards around them from the 2015 results of the inquest with Tim Arnold’s sympathetic lawyer Emmerson, through to the rattle of hospital screens in 2006. After some dilatory faffing by the hospital, it finally gets serious when detectives (Gavin Spokes’ DI Hyatt) and Porton Down officials led by Amanda Hadingeus’ grave plain-speaking Professor Dombey, break the news of his imminent death to Litvinenko. Thereafter as we speed through Litvinenko’s memories from 1994 onwards to that fateful hotel meeting in 2006, Hyatt’s at the rim of them, asking questions as say a Russian party explodes in front of him.
Prebble extracts all the comic potential in what seems a grim tale with a protagonist better at dogged than dominant. Keystone cops incompetence of the assassins themselves replicated recently in Salisbury. Michael Shaeeffer’s sauve Andrei Lugovoi, and Lloyd Hutchinson’s bumbling idiotDimitri Kovturi. Or is he? Arriving late for the flight he nearly misses with a rucksack, he’s able to board unchecked though nearly leaves the phial of poison in flight attendant Sarah Seggari’s keeping she pops up again as nemesis Australian cleaner whose chance remark of KGB, she notes, spooks the pair; as it were.
Their subsequent incompetence is breathaking and we only find this out through Litvinenko’s own narrative how often they failed. It’s more than this though. Prebble’s exposing the corrupt heart of London as a casino clearing house for finance, and Litvinenko’s job is to make these connections. There’s a flash of what Enron means to neo-liberalism and the sense this protagonist whatever his virtues has to survive through facilitating all kinds of Russian laundering.
Directed by John Crowley, the set and costumes by Tom Scutt are thrillingly fluid. Most of this occurs in a box with rapidly moving props and assemblages from hotels to hospitals, intimate flats to club raves, particularly moving when part of the set recedes like something becoming inaccessible forever. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting from neon strips through ghostly interior and Paul Arditti’s sound with Paddy Cunneen’s composition (a mix of Russian and urban evocation) make it seamless and crisp. Aletta Collins’ chorography shows you how much of Prebble’s exuberance has returned here and reinforces the comedy. Ewan Jones Morris’ video jump-cuts the years with fables of Ruslan and Ludmilla (Pushkin’s couple turning into nuclear reactors) and Marie Curie. Bret Yount directs fights.
It’s above all an ensemble effort. And apart from those mentioned, there’s fine multi-roling support from Callum Coates, Marc Graham, Yasmine Holness-Dove, Robyn Moore, and Bea Svistunenko notably as the coping nurse who’s nonplussed by talk of poison.
At the end as in the beginning we’re back with British complicity, Theresa May in Cameron’s government doubling down on Labour’s reluctance to damage all that money-laundering. It’s taken a stage further though, into the stalls as Buring puts quotes in others’ mouths. It breaks down that anaesthetic theatricality and enjoins us to do something more than bear witness.
Huge with history and ambition, this can’t deliver the intimate power of The Effect; and Prebble plays on the way she’s written this, that we can’t closely identify with the characters, layered as they are at one remove from us. Determinedly too choreographed, too comic to more than etch pathos, it still enters the bloodstream. Prebble’s one antidote for these distracted times.