THEATRE / Hearing aid: Paul Taylor on Richard Norton-Taylor's Half the Picture at the Tricycle

In a manner rather different from that of Alan Clark, Richard Norton-Taylor has been 'economical with the actualite'. He's compressed into a mere two hours' traffic of the stage the 400-odd hours of the Scott Inquiry, set up by John Major in November to inquire into whether the Government had connived to breach its own regulations regarding arms sales to Iraq and then put the freedom of innocent men at risk by concealing its actions via Public Interest Immunity Certificates. The result of these editing labours is a powerful, concentrated piece which works not just as a devastating argument for the reform of Whitehall and its smug culture of secrecy, but also in theatrical terms. It fleshes out through body language and shifts of tone (beautifully caught by Nicolas Kent's cast) the subtext of social and psychological gamesmanship that underlay these hearings.

It's an evening that generates a lot of laughter, giving us access to a conceptually cock-eyed Lewis Carroll world, where, as Jeremy Clyde's suitably self-amused and flirtatious Alan Clark admits when speaking of the change of policy on arms sales, some ministers had convinced themselves that 'because something had not been announced it could not have happened'. It's a world where the stonily superior Tristan Garel-Jones (Robert East) can admit, without a trace of intellectual or moral compunction, that the word 'unquantifiable' in the key phrase about the degrees of damage to the public interest needed for an Immunity Certificate, could mean either very large 'or else minuscule'.

Our laughter is uncomfortably revealing, though, as is the significant way a number of people giving evidence endeavour to engage Scott and his barrister-inquisitor Presiley Baxendale (splendid Jan Chappell) in collusive, brainy banter. This outrage at administrative malpractices is offset by our incorrigible fondness for the piquancies of twisted thinking.

To pull you up short and remind you that there's a world outside this rarefied courtroom where lives were drastically affected by decisions, the action is punctuated by a series of monologues written by John McGrath and put into the mouths of (among others) a Matrix Churchill employee, a beleaguered Kurd, a Saddam-supporting Arab, etc. For the most part, though, the heavy- handed representativeness of these figures makes them the weakest aspect of the evening. Only the soliloquy by Paul Henderson, the managing director of the firm, comes over as the utterance of a fully fledged person who can leave you with mixed feelings.

The parting shot to the Inquiry given by Mrs Thatcher (Disdain graciously suffering on a Monument in Sylvia Syms' sublimely comic portrayal) is that 'I fear there will be much grammar to be corrected'. This production convinces you that there are many things which could do with correcting first, not least the restrictions that prevented us from seeing these hearings every evening on television.

Booking: 071-328 1000

In yesterday's review of 'The Lady from the Sea' at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, we stated that it closed on 16 June. It actually runs to 16 July.

(Photograph omitted)

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