A Few Good Men, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Sorkin's script scores thanks to Lowe's timing

This is courtroom drama at its finest and it carries equally well on big screen or stage. These days, of course, the Aaron Sorkin (West Wing) script has special resonance, but what is important to remember is that Sorkin wrote this insightful piece when Afghanistan seemed like a distant neverland and Abu Ghraib like a character from Arabian Nights.

Two young GIs (Nick Court and Michael Wildman, both superb) are charged with causing the death of a third: shaved, terrified, asphyxiated, possibly poisoned. A victim of "Code Red". But who is really responsible? Did they act on orders? If so, whose? Slowly, as the buck creeps bitchily and inexorably up the chain of command, the tension in this all too lifelike drama soars.

Lt Daniel Kaffee (Rob Lowe), son a of a left-wing lawyer who fell foul of McCarthyism, is a rising young advocate hot out of Harvard, now serving in the US Navy. Called on to defend the pair of junior ranks, he funks: all he can trot out is subpoenas and plea-bargains; till, that is, a young female lawyer (Suranne Jones) steels him to the task. Cue a Maryland court-martial, superbly staged before a senior officer (Robert D. Phillips, first-rate) and the agonies unfold.

It all sounds familiar, formulaic, even forgettable, till you add the wit. Sorkin's is a brilliant, intelligent, cutting, shivering and even nasty script whose glorious wry humour only serves to heighten the threat. What makes its message strong is that all the ranks involved believe the monstrosities they are conniving at are for the best. As the Phantoms and helicopters irrupting deafeningly onto the stage remind us, men's lives may depend on it.

Like several of his fellow Brat Pack actors, Lowe is a terrific stage performer. His timing is canny; he cuts through dialogue like a sharp knife with a fine line in crumpled self-deprecation. This is a play packed with memorable one-liners, and Lowe delivers most of them. Jones and Dan Fredenburghare admirable as Lowe's fellow-lawyers-cum-foils, in an evening of sizzling performances - Jack Ellis's bilious colonel (reprising the role made famous by Jack Nicholson); Jonathan Guy Lewis's vile, cynical, bible-waving subordinate; John Barrowman's skilfully understated prosecutor.

What maintains pace most is Mark Henderson's blistering light changes and the shifting patterns of Michael Pavelka's chicken-wire Guantamano and concentrated courtroom. David Esbjornson directs the show magnificently. Believe me, you'll think you were there.

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