A Very Expensive Poison
The Old Vic, London Until October 5, 2hrs 40mins
This is the story of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian agent who exposed links between organised crime and the Russian police. He emigrated to this country and, in 2006, was murdered in London by two former Russian colleagues.
They appear to be a pair of village idiots who finally managed to drop radioactive poison into his tea.
Lucy Prebble’s dark, farcical play features the extraordinary way in which the slowly dying man was able to assist Scotland Yard with his own, eventual, murder inquiry.
This tale of spies and poisons has the novelties of James Bond’s briefcase. Tom Brooke and Peter Polycarpou (above) are part of the strong, multi-tasking cast
Suitably in this tale of spies and poisons, John Crowley’s staging has the novelties of James Bond’s briefcase. Former Soviet presidents appear as giant puppets; billionaire Boris Berezovsky – swaggeringly played by Peter Polycarpou – has a showstopping song; and the co-discoverer of polonium, Marie Curie, features in an intricate dumb show.
Scenes flit between the hospital, Moscow and a London hotel in a cat’s cradle of timelines.
The tone and satirical method owes a debt to the Russian theatre futurists of a century ago, and to Prebble’s play, Enron, about a financial scandal, that was told with a similar theatricality.
MyAnna Buring (pictured above with Brooke), as wife Marina Litvinenko, sails through the play with effortless dignity, whilst Brooke’s Litvinenko is a man of integrity and uxoriousness
It’s startling to look at but much of the staging, however ingenious, struck me as a bit tricksy and unnecessary. The bald facts – taken from Luke Harding’s book and the 2015 public inquiry – are quite dramatic enough.
The show has a strong, multi-tasking cast. Tom Brooke’s Litvinenko is a man of integrity and uxoriousness. Reece Shear-smith’s dapper Putin, with a smirking resemblance to Kevin Spacey, pops up all over the theatre giving his version of events.
MyAnna Buring, as wife Marina Litvinenko, sails through it all with effortless dignity – unlike the hitmen (Lloyd Hutchinson, Michael Shaeffer).
Though some of the staging is a bit tricksy and unnecessary, the strength of the play is the Litvinenkos’ love and their tragedy
Theresa May initially postponed an inquiry into the case for fear of upsetting Moscow. They missed a trick in not bringing her on dressed as a chicken. But the strength of this is the Litvinenkos’ love and their tragedy.
It leaves you with real anger at his murder and sends a chill down the spine. Be it London or Salisbury, nowhere, it seems, is beyond the reach of the Kremlin’s despotic revenge.
The Other Palace, London Until November 23, 2hrs 40mins
This is the British debut of a 1992 US hit show – a reworking of two earlier one-act pieces – about a chap called Marvin who leaves his wife and child for a man.
It’s written by James Lapine and William Finn (Lapine co-wrote three musicals with the great Stephen Sondheim, who was clearly an influence on Finn’s breathless, pithy music and lyrics).
It’s satirical and very New York-Jewish: songs include Four Jews In A Room Bitching and Cancelling The Bar Mitzvah.
Falsettos is the British debut of a 1992 US hit show – a reworking of two earlier one-act pieces – about a chap called Marvin who leaves his wife and child for a man
When Marvin (Daniel Boys) dumps his wife Trina (Laura Pitt-Pulford) in 1979, he wrongly imagines his fit new toyboy Whizzer (Oliver Savile) will also have his dinner ready on time.
While the family bends, it doesn’t break. Trina is scooped up by Marvin’s psychiatrist (Joel Montague) in a menage that includes Trina’s nervy young son (Albert Atack) and two lesbians next door.
It’s in the second act, set in 1981, that a new disease (HIV/Aids) injects a note of emotional loss into this eccentric and brave (for its time) comedy that redefines the all-American family.
How Love Is Spelt
Southwark Playhouse, London Until September 28, 2hrs 20mins
Michelle Collins crops up in the second half of this play about a young girl lost in London. Having long since departed EastEnders, Collins is back there – playing a Dot Cotton part as the mumsy, chain-smoking, nosy neighbour downstairs who offers warmth and wisdom to a stray girl, Peta, who is living on her own.
But I’m afraid hers isn’t the scene you remember. That comes earlier on. When we first meet Peta, she’s got a semi-naked bloke in her bed. There are five episodes, a different visitor in each.
After the hilariously laddish Joe (Benjamin O’Mahony) – ‘One thing I’ve learnt, don’t be sexist in front of the birds’ – it’s all downhill. It culminates in a showdown with the abusive, older boyfriend (Nigel Boyle) and a past that Peta – well played, with a watchful, hunted look by Larner Wallace-Taylor – has failed to escape.
Having long since departed EastEnders, Michelle Collins is back there – playing a Dot Cotton part as the nosy neighbour downstairs who offers warmth and wisdom to a stray girl, Peta
Chloe Moss’s play was acclaimed for its vividness and humour when it was first seen in 2004. But whatever happened to the funny bits? Without them, this chilly bath of big-city solitude is hard to take.
Minerva Theatre, Chichester Until September 28
The Lowry, Manchester October 3-19, 2hrs 30mins
Cordelia Lynn – who recently adapted Chekhov’s Three Sisters – now takes on the Ibsen classic Hedda Gabler.
In order that it makes sense when updated to today, Lynn and director Holly Race Roughan turn Hedda into a frustrated middle-aged mother who threw away her career supporting her husband, Tesman.
She’s bored, until the arrival of two admirers, Judge Brack and the brilliant, troubled student Elijah. But here her rival for the latter’s attentions, Thea (originally a younger schoolmate of Hedda’s), becomes her estranged daughter.
Cordelia Lynn turns Hedda into a frustrated mother who threw away her career supporting her husband, Tesman played by an endearing Anthony Calf (above with Jacqueline Clarke)
All of which creates as many problems as it solves. I didn’t buy that this caustic, selfish Hedda would ever have put her husband first. And while the generational jealousy is a useful motive for her manipulative actions, it also means she destroys her own child, amping up the cruelty.
Jonathan Hyde is a superbly smooth and urbane Brack, and Anthony Calf endearing as the mild, bumbling Tesman. Haydn Gwynne, positively dripping contempt, is a suitably glamorous Hedda – although Irfan Shamji as Elijah somehow fails to spark off her.
The zinging dialogue is briskly natural and bleakly funny. The tragic conclusion, however, doesn’t really land – and definitely doesn’t feel very 2019. This material seems to require too many contortions.
I’d rather see Lynn’s own take on motherhood and ageing.
Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough Until October 5, 2hrs 40mins
Alan Ayckbourn turned 80 this year, so no wonder landmark birthdays are on his mind in his 83rd play, a bedroom farce with its own twist.
It opens at the 80th birthday of Micky, a cantankerous old sod played by Russell Dixon with impeccable, bluff comic timing. Micky and wife Meg – a cheery Jemma Churchill – are waiting for their son Adrian (Jamie Baughan), who’s bringing new girlfriend Grace.
They worry, via a lot of effortfully expositional conversation, whether they should ‘warn her’: Micky is convinced that his apparently mild-mannered son is in fact a sexual ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, making ‘insatiable’ demands of women.
Not all the performances are subtle, but then nor is the material – and special mention must go to Naomi Petersen (above with Jamie Baughan)
In a wildly unbelievable but intermittently funny scene, Micky expounds his theory to the prim, tittering Grace. But it all seems improbable – and the play hops backwards three times to reveal various comedy misunderstandings at different birthday parties that explain how his father did indeed get it so wrong.
It’s like an extremely silly version of Harold Pinter’s reverse-chronology masterpiece Betrayal – only with drunken catfights, games of snap and teenage dares instead of poignant pauses.
If the set-up feels laboured and not all the pay-offs work, there is still joy to be had in watching Ayckbourn unspool his story. A scene where Adrian is sent a brassy prostitute is cleverly constructed – and the funniest.
Both his writing and directing can feel old-fashioned but there’s knowing enjoyment in sending the actors back through time, with increasingly dodgy wigs; they rise to it with gusto.
Not all the performances are subtle, but then nor is the material – and special mention must go to Naomi Petersen, who appears totally transformed as the different women of Adrian’s affection.