The Illustrious Corpse, Haymarket Theatre, Leicester

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The Independent Culture

First Nicholas Hytner's seditious Henry V at the National, now Tariq Ali's attack on Britain's participation in the recent Gulf War. Suffice to say Tony Blair's right honourable bottom won't be troubling the plush at either venue this summer. Not that Tariq Ali requires its presence in the Midlands for him to swing his satirical boot at it.

The feel is decidedly Ortonesque as heightened quips fly over the corpse of Home Secretary, Sir Huntley Palmer Jones. His wife, Desdemona confesses to poisoning him. A Truscott-ish top brass copper investigates, and an affair with a Home Office adviser is revealed. Where the piece veers away from Orton is in its targets. Joe Orton loved his petty authority figures. Tariq Ali is aiming for the top.

Sir Huntley Palmer Jones (a smooth Trevor Thomas), the son of a Trinidadian factory worker who wouldn't even have made it to Number 10 Downing Street for beer and sandwiches in the white world of Sixties and Seventies trades union leadership, is bent on becoming the first black PM.

We see him in flashback in 1979 as an old Labour firebrand addressing an anti-Apartheid rally on the day that Desdemona fell politics-over-heels in love with him.

Cut to April 2003 and Jones's complicity on Iraq is the Jack Straw that breaks the camel's back in his metamorphosis from man-of-the-people to socially mobile man of war.

Desdemona decides to perform her act of political euthanasia to expose the moral bankruptcy at the heart of New Labour. It's an execution, she says, not murder. "Rules are different in a time of war."

In these prurient times, Russell Dixon's blustering police chief will not believe that such an act could be inspired by mere political principle. He is most eager to find sexual motivation both for his own titillation and as a means for the Government to cover up the off-message protest. It's a keen satirical observation that New Labour may feel more comfortable with a sex scandal, the hackneyed modus operandi of fallen Tories where Labour nogoodniks were caught traditionally with their fingers in the till.

The director Iqbal Khan's task is an uphill one with a play that grows ever more dense. Kristin Milward's Desdemona in particular, so alive in dialogue, seems weighed down with the long speeches. Khan lets the pace flag on occasion, with one protracted set piece, involving roping off the crime scene, drifting uncomfortably in and out of comedy.

Does all of this sound a bit heavy handed? Well, of course it is, and it's really no bad thing. In the folklore of Ireland, if a King was satirised sufficiently well, he was compelled to abdicate in shame.

That is the pitch for satire: it must shoot for the moon if it has any chance of breaking the upstairs windows. If it merely rings the doorbell and runs away, it has failed.

To 21 July (0116 253 9797)

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