A Very Expensive Poison, The Old Vic

Warning: This review discusses a moment toward the end of the play. 

If I’m the victim of a state sponsored assassination – something awful like a Polonium-210 suppository, administered by a gastroenterologist in the employ of a gangster cum dictator – all I ask is that theatreland leaves my story to journalists. I beg all playwrights to resist, because I didn’t go through that suffering – chronic pain, internal bleeding, the loss of my remaining hair, then organ failure, just so some hack, let’s say someone like Lucy Prebble, could reimagine my life and murder as a punishingly long, tonally schizoid journey from camp to mawkishness. Dignity in death, folks – dignity in death.

A Very Expensive Poison is one of those productions that must have got funders very excited. A worthy subject matter, a defence of liberal values and self-expression, topical political commentary; a play text that mashed genres and was self-reflexive – and plenty of broad jokes, so accessible too. What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, assisted by the Old Vic’s cramped, muscle-locking seating, aging AV system (a flatline noise permeated the second half of my performance, implanting a metaphor) and some technical flubs – all of which will no doubt be given a lethal dose of radiation in previews, John Crowley’s play dies a slow and lingering death, much like…, well, you know.

In this audition for a chance to write a flippant political drama for Channel 4 that keeps us laughing, the facts are repackaged as low comedy and high farce, but with an earnest, finger-wagging undercurrent. Thus the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning is glibly retold with the dramatis personae boiled down to crude archetypes. All the way down to Vladimir Putin himself, who, in the form of Reece Shearsmith, becomes a malevolent comic character straight from Inside no. 9.

I confess to hating this method of flattening out complicated people and accentuating the inherent absurdities of their situations above all else, because it hollows out those moments in which the audience is required to invest in real horror and poignancy – like asking someone to taste wine after munching garlic.

In the first half, despite many scenes feeling overextended, there’s a nominal balance between the Litvinenkos’ plight and background in mother Russia (Tom Brooke and MyAnna Buring uneasily and sometimes problematically shifting between thick Russian and English accents to signal a change in languages), and the domestic politics and human tragedy they’re caught up in. Prebble succeeds when she allows characters monologues that contexualise the Russian mindset and Putin’s regime. The play fares less well when it imagines the story as a self-aware sitcom.

After the interval, perhaps intimidated by the meat of the tale – international espionage and murder, the play opts to keep the audience interested by upping the farce and drawing monotonous attention to its own artifice (in case anyone was in danger of becoming too invested). Ostensibly this is a comment on constructing a narrative, the manipulation of the truth, but it’s also handy cover for the production’s inability to provoke and appal on a scale commensurate with the outrage it sluggishly re-enacts.

Buring breaks character toward the end in an odd attempt to reset the audience; reminding them it’s all been a bit of a lark but there’s a serious point to all this fucking about. Resuming, then thanking the audience for reading out the verdict into the public inquiry as Maria Litvinenko, is a strange and misjudged attempt at extending the real family’s struggle into this now neutered fantasy space.

Ultimately, though it’s in places informative, A Very Expensive Poison is a very expensive means of sapping the intrigue and human interest from one man’s inhumane death. With judicious cuts, greater focus and a tonal overhaul it could have been a worthy companion to the investigation that inspired it, but in its present, meandering form, it’s unlikely to either open minds or stimulate them.

A Very Expensive Poison is in previews at the Old Vic until September 4th, booking to October 5th.    

Look Back on: Terence Rattigan

With revivals of his work at the National Theatre, Theatre Royal, Bath, Chichester Festival Theatre, The Garrick and on tour why does the work of Rattigan attract modern audiences?

09thedeepblue0906aNational Theatre’s The Deep Blue Sea (1952), directed by Carrie Cracknell and starring Helen McCrory this summer was one of a number of revivals of his work, including English Touring Theatre’s French Without Tears (1936) and Christopher Luscombe’s Theatre Royal, Bath production of While the Sun Shines (1943). The Arcola Theatre also presented Kenny Morgan (2016) by Mike Poulton, a piece that put Rattigan and his romantic relationships in the spotlight.

Kenneth Branagh tackled two very different works as the opening production for his Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company at the Garrick Theatre; the comedy Harlequinade about a man playing Romeo who finds out he is a grandfather from liaison twenty years ago and All on Her Own with Zoe Wannamaker playing a widow.

111110_770_previewThe growing interest in Rattigan extends beyond the stage. In 2011 Benedict Cumberbatch presented a documentary about his fellow Old Harrovian  BBC4 and in the same year, Terrence Davies adapted The Deep Blue Sea for the silver screen starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale. Cumberbatch had previously appeared in the National Theatre’s 2010 revival of After the Dance (1939). The play struggled in its summer 1939 premiere and the suggestion has been that its darkness was too much for a country approaching war.

There was a time when Rattigan and his work was rejected by society. The emergence of angry young man such as John Osbourne made his work seem outdated, aimed at a middle class, older audience. The critics turned on him and even when Rattigan funded an upcoming writer called Joe Orton’s work he felt it stood no change in a time where he was rejected as being out of date and irrelevant.

The modern audience embraces Rattigan and the suggestion is due to his work of repressed passion but my interest in Rattigan stems from his bold writing, especially about homosexuality. Separate Tables (1954)’ first half has political scandal but the second half, focusing on a fraudulent man living the in the Bournemouth and the impact his arrest for homosexual importuning has on his fellow boarders. In Major Pollock Rattigan creates a greatly sympathetic character, whose bold claims mask the fact he can never truly be himself.


In Ross (1960), recently revived with Joseph Fiennes in the lead at Chichester Festival Theatre, Rattigan depicts the rape of T.E Lawrence so vividly that it is shocking to a 2016 audience but again it is a depiction of a man lost, a man who is hiding from who he really is. It is a common theme in Rattigan’s work and it seems to reflect the inner turmoil of a man who, due to his own homosexuality, could never reveal his true self.

Rattigan died aged 66 in 1977,after moving to Bermuda when his popularity as a playwright began to wane. His last work, Clause Celebre (revived in 2011 at the Old Vic with Anne-Marie Duff),was inspired by the murder of Francis Rattenbury.  It is clear in hindsight that Rattigan was a prolific and varied writer, perhaps too much so and he needed to step aside, along with Noel Coward and JB Priestley for a younger generation. With time his work is now appreciated for the quality and discussion it still provokes.

‘You’d need to pay me to drink here’ London’s Theatre bars and pubs

Why are theatre bars such grim places to have a drink? I was inspired to write this blog by my friend Alison, who voiced her contempt for Soho Theatre’s cramped, loud and very expensive bar. In theory Soho is full of other bars you can go to but they suffer from the same problems that Soho Theatre presents, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night.

Increasingly venues are trying to not only make themselves available to those seeing a production but to those in the area who fancy a drink. The problem is that they are barely welcoming to those who have to be there let alone to any passing trade. The NT, for example, has plenty of bars, such as the new Understudy and restaurants but, in my experience, the service can be poor, the seats can be minimal and the drinks so very expensive. Even smaller theatres like Southwark Playhouse, which has more welcoming prices and much nicer than the near-by Rockingham Arms, is not really a venue I would choose to drink in if I wasn’t there to see a show.

The Old Vic has renovated its downstairs space and seems keen for people to go there before and after a show but it is too small and there is still enough competition in the Waterloo/Strand/Elephant and Castle area for people to go elsewhere. It is a real shame that, like toilets, theatres haven’t gone out of their way to make the general spaces more comfortable.

There is also the tradition of theatres above pubs and for me the likes of the Finborough, King’s Head and The Lion and the Unicorn get it right because they genuinely cater to theatre goers and general pub goers alike.

My suggestion would be to stop off at the nearest supermarket and stock up on tins of gin but the many security searches audiences face in the West End means this is unlikely (though always do this for interval sweets, I am afraid the ice cream might melt before then).


If you do know of any good theatre bars please let me know in the comments!


The Caretaker, 23 April, The Old Vic

The attraction to this production isn’t just that Harold Pinter’s play seems to be attract some very fine actors in all its adaptations, just look at its incredible production history over the last 55 years but that the Old Vic have managed a real on coup in getting Timothy Spall, one of Britain’s greatest character actors to return to the stage after an absence of over twenty years, his last role being Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It is clear that theatre has moved on without Spall, his performance is far more hammy than necessary, I love a bit of ham but for it to work in 2016 ALL the actors need to be old hams and Daniel Mays as Aston, the gentle giant who allows Spall’s homeless Davies to share his room and George Mackay as Mick, Aston’s landlord brother are from a far less hammy generation of acting styles and it contrasts doesn’t enhance anyone’s performance.

Whilst it oozes humour there is a real psychological aspect that I feel is missed, especially compared to the darkness of Pinter’s The Hothouse, revived by Jamie Lloyd and Matthew Warchus’s production just about hits on it during Aston’s monologue, this is an image (1).jpgextraordinary performance by Mays an actor I have never taken to because he usually plays unkind characters with an unkind face but he seemed like a different actor here,  about his stay in a psychiatric ward but otherwise I came out wondering “Why should I care?”.  The standout performance is Mackay, his confidence at such a young age surely marks him out as one of his generation’s actors to watch (and my friends thought he looked great in his tight black outfit) but both Mackay and Mays are unfortunate to have the majority of their roles with Spall, who is adequate but has taken on a role far too big after such a long absence

My concern, having seen a couple of productions at the Old Vic by Warchus is that he is not good with such a large space. He uses small sets with black outlines, which for those sat beyond the stalls is incredibly distracting and I cannot blame the Old Vic for usurping Warchus for Spacey when the opportunity arose in 2003, now he has arrived his reign feels as mundane as the National Theatre’s and more expensive. I have high hopes for Glenda Jackson’s Lear but right now the Old Vic needs an injection of plays that aren’t too long and aren’t too dull.