A Few Good Men, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London <br></br> Who Killed Mr Drum, RiversidE, London

On trial in the star chamber
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The Independent Culture

Their actions, Kaffe discovers, were a "Code Red" incident - ie a case of in-house bullying meant to make a slacker fall into line. On this occasion, the rag stuffed in the victim's mouth was apparently poisoned, unbeknownst to Dawson and Downey.

In case you're confused, this is Guantanamo before Bush's notorious prison was set up there. Sorkin hasn't updated his 1989 hit, declaring plays should be built to last and, if he wrote it right, this one ought to be persistently relevant. Well, it is. Questions currently surrounding the deaths of UK soldiers at Deepcut immediately spring to mind, as do abuses by US guards at Abu Ghraib. Sorkin shines a spotlight on the military's hierarchies and internal rules of conduct, its members' fierce but also questionable belief in duty, loyalty and macho standards.

But, oh boy, would that the playwright had engineered a better cover-up regarding his own dramatic cogs and spanners with which he blatantly and predictably ratchets up the tension. This fundamentally feels like a very old-fashioned courtroom drama and it's doubly passé by comparison with the Tricycle theatre company's recent piece, Guantanamo. Creaky flashbacks and odd loose ends also feature here, including no explanations regarding the poisoned rag.

To be fair, there are some gripping exchanges and amusing snipes, and David Esbjornson's production boasts several fine performances, including Suranne Jones and Dan Fredenburgh as Kaffe's stroppy support team. Lowe acquits himself admirably too but he looks curiously like a crusading ventriloquist's dummy with his square-jaw small-physique combo. And ultimately Sorkin's early work is disappointing viewing after The West Wing. There are embarrassingly corny moments and the fast-paced dialogue, like machine-gun fire, is bewildering, annoying and then mind-numbing.

Another murder-mystery unfolds in Who Killed Mr Drum. Set in Sophiatown in the 1950s, this is based on the memoirs of Sylvester Stein, the white liberal editor of The Drum - South Africa's stir-causing first magazine for black people by black journalists, including the celebrated author, Can Themba. We see the core team here, initially lounging around in their office and joshing about the allure of white ladies, but the mood darkens as government bulldozers move in to start obliterating the township. Though popular for its gossip and cultural reviews, the publication becomes increasingly tempted to test the political boundaries, questioning apartheid and indeed the death, in unclear circumstances, of their investigative journo, Henry Nxumalo - aka Mr Drum.

Paul Robinson's production has terrific features, with rumpled boozing scenes and swirling, dancing set changes. The South African star Sello Maake Ka-Ncube is magnetic as the hedonistic Themba who then spirals downwards into despair, conducting a mixed-race affair and wracked with guilt about Nxumalo. Strong support is provided by Lucian Msamati as the snappy intellectual Zeke Mphahlele, and newcomer Georgina Sutcliffe, playing Themba's lover, is a name to watch. However, Fraser Grace and Stein's joint dramatisation badly lets the side down, with dull dialogue and a hopelessly rambling storyline. The titular question is never answered. Hit and miss.


'A Few Good Men': to 17 Dec, 0870 901 3356; 'Who Killed Mr Drum?': to 8 Oct, 020 8237 1111