Musical numbers: “Gangland,” “A Kiss Goodbye,” “Down With Drugs,” “Homes,” “Cold Cold Heart,” “Suddenly,” “Danger in the Dark,” “Yo Yo,” “The Girl Who Will Be Kissed,” “Friday Night,” “One Last Time,” “Am I Too Old,” “Hungry for Love,” “Daylight Fades,” “Guns and Girls, Drugs and Booze,” “Fool in Love,” “Hollywood, ” “(Strange Day) You Came Along,” “Sexy Lady,” “I Love Those Eyes,” “Don’t You Dare,” “Show Us the Stars.”
As theater, “Poison” is barely passable, but good heavens, does it have a heart! The latest collaboration from the South African team (David Kramer and Taliep Petersen) behind Broadway’s recent “Kat and the Kings,” “Poison” is as drearily message-laden and cautionary as that double Olivier Award-winner was somewhat naively (if enjoyably) upbeat. At times, it’s as if the authors were making up in this show for what many critics felt to be a crucial absence of content in the earlier one, which was little more than an exceedingly lively romp blessed with the most buoyant cast imaginable.
To abet their cause, the writers have latched on to “Othello,” though you may be hard-pressed to spot the similarities beyond the crucial presence here of an errant handkerchief. Otherwise, “Poison” is like a “Just Say No” anti-narcotics campaign that barely functions as high school agitprop: As it is, its London premiere is less likely to turn viewers away from the dangers of crack than to send them hurtling into the street in search of real excitement, from whatever corner it may come.
Kramer’s production unfolds on Bunny Christie’s unattractive and cheesy set, which relocates the “Othello” saga to an all-black north London housing estate. Never mind that most such estates (that’s Britspeak for “housing projects”) — in London, anyway — are decidedly multiracial in a city that possesses a vast white underclass of a sort that New Yorkers, say, might barely recognize? The ongoing intricacies surrounding the awful murder at the hands of a gang of white thugs of black teenager Stephen Lawrence — an event recreated in all its repercussions to stupendous dramatic effect last year on the Tricycle stage — made that chillingly clear.
But it’s just one of the inadequacies of “Poison” that a show ostensibly driven by a thirst for the real should seem so out of touch with its chosen turf. Theatergoers would be better off tuning in virtually any night to one or another of Britain’s better TV news shows or documentaries, which chronicle life on the front line far better than “Poison” ever does.
What’s left, then, is a low-rent “Rent,” rife with gusto and fervor yet depleted of imagination, style and wit. “Kids round here don’t have a dream,” we’re told at the start, with much finger-wagging at the audience to heighten the point. Later remarks are on the order of, “There’s no place for love in a cold, cold heart,” alongside the pithier, “We are the people/drugs must go.”
Such unarguable sentiments are pressed into the service of the story of Michael (Mykal Rand, doubling as the show’s apparently aerobics-obsessed choreographer), the resident drug lord whose head is done in less by illegal substances than by the insinuations of the sinewy — and Iago-ish — Poison (played by Guy Burgess). Beyond that, any affinities to the Bard more or less disappear: I don’t remember hearing Shakespeare’s characters singing a second-act tribute to Hollywood.
Against the backdrop of Petersen’s fizzy score (the show’s single greatest asset), two women fight for their dignity — and, ultimately, for their lives — even as a pair of variably lovesick men (one of whom goes suggestively by the name of Shaggy, played by the endearingly eyes-agog Horace Oliver) struggle to remain clean. The tragic ending is preordained, as is the crushing earnestness: “Poison” may keep one ear comically cocked toward Hollywood, but I doubt the honor will be returned.