A Few Good Men
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Imagine the tragic manslaughter of a teenage private in the US Marines. Imagine that it is part of an illegal Code Red punishment in which two of his colleagues are ordered to rough up a snitch by their sergeant who in turn has instructions from a head of the Guantanamo Bay camp. Think of the most ridiculous cover up in which the army doctor is blackmailed by the head of camp and everyone is forced to lie their socks off (the socks coming in useful later). Then bring in a wisecracking naval Attorney with six months' experience to defend the men, aided and abetted by a bright colleague with a new baby on his mind and a woman who looks as if she is in constant pain and outranks them both but has a knack of putting her foot into her mouth in court. That in a nutshell is the plot of A Few Good Men.
The courtroom drama that ensues replaces legal processes with insubordination and casual chat and clever and insightful case building with jokes and asides. It is almost as if the well-regarded American director, David Isbjornson has decided that he cannot take his script seriously and so has chosen to recreate this play about a tragic real-life event using the Marx Brothers playing up for all of the laughs that they can get.
A Few Good Men might well do well at the box office as it has most of the right ingredients. The cast is led by former Bratpacker Rob Lowe who, after his own courtroom dramas, has resurrected his career starring in The West Wing (also written by the writer of this play, Aaron Sorkin). He is supported by Suranne Jones, well known to Coronation Street fans for her performances as Karen McDonald and John Barrowman who is more usually seen starring in musicals.
The title should be familiar since the original Broadway production became a successful film, directed by Rob Reiner and packed with stars such as Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson and Kiefer Sutherland.
This has the scope to be a taut drama that sheds light on the bullying of US military recruits and also on Guantanamo Bay, a naval base that everybody in the world has now heard of. This, combined with a courtroom drama in which the commanding officer (played by Jack Ellis) eventually cracks and confesses all, to the delight of an audience impressed by the legal interplay, would provide an engrossing two-and-half hours on the West End stage.
Instead, the audience is presented with the worst kind of television drama where sitcom drives intellect out of the courtroom and one eventually forgets that a young man has been brutally murdered as result of institutionalised bullying of the worst kind.
The investigation by the incompetent team of lawyers which comprises "a pushy broad, a smart Jew and a Harvard mouth" gets almost nowhere, partly because of the misguided loyalties of the accused men but also because of a massive cover up and their inability to spot the blindingly obvious.
It is only with the efforts of a marine deserte, who breaks into the Pentagon with a pistol and steals documents, and a mad outburst from the camp colonel that the inept court efforts of the defence team eventually arrive at a predictably happy ending.
This kind of writing and acting, which strives for weak laughs at the expense of plot and character development, has become common on television but most theatre audiences demand some mental stimulation. Unless you are a big fan of one of the stars and want to see them in the flesh, there are at least a dozen better ways of spending a theatre evening in London.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher