A Few Good Men, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

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The Independent Culture

A Few Good Men is courtroom drama at its finest. No wonder Rob Reiner filmed it as a famous tussle between Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. Incredibly, Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, came up with the idea of a play on abuse affecting the American military in Cuba when the effects of Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib were unknown. Here, Deepcut was still unheard of.

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

Lt Daniel Kaffee (Rob Lowe), son a of a liberal lawyer who fell foul of McCarthyism, is a laid-back young advocate just out of Harvard, now serving in the US Navy. Summoned to defend the pair of junior ranks, he funks: all he can trot out is subpoenas and plea-bargains, until a young female lawyer (Suranne Jones) steels him to the task. Cue a Maryland court-martial before a black senior officer (Robert D Phillips, first-rate).

Sorkin's is a brilliant, intelligent, cutting, shivering and even nasty script, in whichwry humour only serves to heighten a sense of threat. What makes its message so strong is that all involved believe the monstrosities they are conniving at are for the best.

Lowe is a terrific stage actor. His timing is canny, he slices through dialogue like a knife and does a fine line in crumpled self put-downs. Jones and Dan Fredenburgh make an admirable job of Lowe's fellow-lawyers-cum-foils, in an evening of sizzling performances - Jack Ellis's bilious colonel; Jonathan Guy Lewis as the cynical, bible-waving intermediary; John Barrowman's skilfully understated prosecutor.

Mark Henderson's razor-fine lights changes, Ian Dickinson's blistering soundscape and the shifting patterns of Michael Pavelka's chicken-wire Guantamano and concentration-packed courtroom maintain the pace. David Esbjornson directs with real punch. Believe me, you'll think you were there.

To 17 December (0870 380 2003)