Justifying War, Tricycle Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Not many evenings in the theatre begin with a minute's silence, though - as a way of acknowledging the recently deceased - there are plenty that should end that way. It was how Lord Hutton kicked off his inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelly, and it is how the journalist Richard Norton-Taylor and the director Nicolas Kent launch Justifying War, their reconstruction of the Hutton hearings.

This latest tribunal drama at the Tricycle succeeds in highlighting more painfully than ever how it took a man's death by his own hand to prompt a salutary probe into a scandal that reaches to the heart of government. The title may refer to the invasion of Iraq or to the battle between the BBC and Downing Street, but the production rightly emphasizes that the nucleus of the affair is a private tragedy.

One of the ways it does so is by a single departure from the otherwise chronological sequence of witnesses: the last word is given to Dr Kelly's widow, Janice. The painstaking verisimilitude of the staging, with its plasma screens flashing up all manner of documents, is matched by the documentary accuracy that even reproduces the fluctuating drift in the voice link-up with Mrs Kelly. A virtue of dramatic reconstruction is that it can alert you to details that fall through the net in day-to-day newspaper coverage. I shall never forget the brief, harrowing silence at the other end of the line before Mrs Kelly, hitherto steady and stoic, confirms that the painkiller her husband used was the medication that she takes for arthritis.

In the line-up of Government witnesses - David Michaels's grimly combative and faintly contemptuous Alastair Campbell, Kenneth Bryans as a creepily evasive Geoff Hoon - Tony Blair is conspicuous by his absence. Some may feel that this is Hamlet without the Prince; the makers of this piece evidently feel that the Prime Minister is a more potent presence offstage. That's debatable. What's not in doubt, however, is the beneficial way in which these dramatic overviews of public inquiries alert you to a sub-culture's betraying patterns of speech - the Alice in Wonderland nonsense logic of Whitehall in the arms-to-Iraq play Half the Picture, for example, or the telling refrain of both police and suspects ("I don't remember") in The Colour of Justice, dramatizing the McPherson inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's death.

Here, it's the language of buck-passing and exaggeration that is the recurring tic. One of the reasons that "sexed-up" is such an irritating expression is that it blatantly demonstrates what it denotes: a silly sexing-up of "exaggerate". Radiating out from that are many examples of what the refreshingly measured, retired civil servant, Brian Jones, calls "over-egging". The one witness performance that drew applause was that by Roland Oliver as Andrew McKinlay MP. Comically Dickensian in his courtroom-hogging self-importance ("I am like a sprung coil this morning, my Lord"), he nonetheless puts his finger on the irony that documents and witnesses made available to this inquiry had been denied to the Foreign Affairs Committee. It's scarcely a thriving democracy, he implies, when it takes a suicide to release vital information into the public domain.

To 29 November (020-7328 1000)

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