THEATRE / Speechless in the dock: Rhoda Koenig reviews The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals at the Lyric, Hammersmith

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The Birmingham Seven, the Guildford Four, the Clare-sur-Lee 1132 - 'conspiratorial concealment of facts' in legal cases, as Geoffrey Cush's play tells us, has been going on for centuries, affecting birds and beasts as well as furless, featherless bipeds. In Clare the French peasants of the late eighteenth century have happily assisted in excommunicating locusts that have eaten their crops and burning a calculating horse. The latter animal's only crime is excessive intelligence - or rather the appearance of it.

Yet the blame for these lunatic prosecutions cannot be laid at the doors of the slack-jawed set. As ever - as in Teheran, Los Angeles, or the Central Criminal Court, London EC4 - the miscarriage of justice is carried out from the top, to suit the top people. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals tries, in a 100-minute playing time, to cover too much ground, but it explores a great many fascinating questions on the uses of power and the reasoning of those in it.

'There is singing in the valley', observes Isabel Farine, a member of the Committee for Judicial Reform who has come to inspect the administration of justice in Clare. 'Yes', says a local. 'Tonight is the night of the Easter mouse hunt'. Yet, as Isabel discovers, this supposedly quaint tradition has been thought up the day before yesterday, to help ligitimise the status of animals as 'limbs of Satan'. This suits the ruling class, says Martin Brise, Isabel's lover, who is returning to his native town after three years. The farmers, he explains, can sublimate their hatred of the aristocracy by killing animals. (A Freudian avant la lettre, Martin is a bit careless with the terminology; 'divert' might be more accurate.)

If fear motivates the gentry, greed is behind the middle-class mischief. Martin has been driven out of Clare after a pig is lynched for eating a child. Martin's younger brother, who wants to deprive him of his inheritance, put it about that Martin, who spent a lot of time in the barn reading, was giving improper thoughts to the pig. Now, as the prosecutions mount, the peasants become so inflamed by the idea of exacting revenge that they try to bring the entire natural world to book. A tree is sentenced to be burnt for falling and damaging property, and a farmer asks that an icicle be arraigned for killing his strawberry plant. Martin and Isable try to restore sense and justice to Clare, but face a powerful opponent in a lawyer who has made a comfortable living out of arguing that animals should be hanged and quartered.

As long as The Criminal Prosecution sticks with the facts and the social issues, it is a gripping drama, a sort of daft version of The Crucible. But unlike that play, it doesn't give its hero any moral ambiguity, or sufficiently develop the personalities involved. It also considers the distracting and, finally, irrelevant question of whether animals have souls, even including a conversation between Jesus in his last days and a rather rough dog.

The large cast assembled by Oracle Production is of a high standard, particularly those who play the matter-of-fact types. These include Michael Onslow's refined Martin, Chris McHallem's kindly defence attorney, and Vincent Worth's robust butcher, regretfully but thoroughly applying the tools of his torture kit in the prescribed manner to a dog who refuses to confess the whereabouts of his accomplice in crime. Ricci Harnet's performance in the gruelling role of the dog is impressive in its realism and, in the torture scene, unbearable to anyone upset by RSPCA commercials. The baddies, though - a smirking judge and prosecutor - signal their complacency a bit too much. I don't think Lord Denning made faces as he conveyed the full majesty and wisdom of the courts of England.

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