From The West Wing to the West End, writer Aaron Sorkin sees a belated London production for A Few Good Men, the play that originally marked his Broadway playwriting debut back in 1989. Soon after writing it, Sorkin was promptly lost to film (including the screenplay to a 1992 movie version of this play) and television, and is yet to return to the theatre.
It's a pity, because he has a keen eye (and ear) for the telescoping of action and focusing of powerful but intimate scenes, as well as giving the specific events under examination a wider canvas to resonate around. That said, the intricate patterning of short scenes that back up and over each other, and the volley of changes of settings, are also intrinsically televisual, so it's no wonder he's found his natural home there.
The form that Sorkin has adopted for the play also successfully disguises its rather conventional content. This is just a traditional courtroom drama, in which two young, low-ranking marines, Dawson and Downey, stand accused of murdering an unpopular 18-year-old colleague, Willy Santiago, who had broken the military code and reported an illegal frontline shooting from his naval base.
That happens to be located on Guantanamo Bay. That locale isn't the only thing that gives A Few Good Men - first produced long before the Cuban base’s current use which has made it familiar to us all - a quirky contemporary resonance. Unlike the horrific pictures emanating from Abu Ghraib, here the culture of violence isn't from soldiers to prisoners but amongst themselves; and specifically, to do with what's called a 'Code Red', an illegal disciplinary punishment in which they take the law into their own hands.
Sorkin skilfully uses this story to weave a smart, gripping portrait of military life and (ill) manners, and the unfolding legal procedures as a hotshot young lawyer Daniel Kaffee is parachuted in to defend the two marines. Though Rob Lowe looks more like an airline pilot than a military lawyer in his dark suit, he cuts an appropriately impassioned figure, though he could cut down on some of the loaded, smouldering glances he keeps shooting across the Washington courtmartial in the climactic Act Two testimonial scene.
His defence team also comprises a special counsel from internal affairs, Joanne Galloway (Suranne Jones) and Sam Weinberg (Dan Fredenburgh), while on the other side, Jack Ross (John Barrowman) leads the prosecution. While these intelligent people are intelligently brought to life, it's the devil that has all the good tunes, or rather good lines. The most vividly inhabited roles of the night are the military top brass, Jack Ellis' commander of the base Colonel Jessep and Jonathan Guy Lewis as his right-hand man Lieutenant Kendrick.
David Esbjornson's production keeps it moving fast and freely on Michael Pavelka's stark, industrial set. And away from the dry courtroom setting - the viewpoints of which are themselves constantly shifted - there's lots of background colour as snipers are seen hanging from helicopters and marines pull themselves upside down along ropes.
The result is an appealing piece of popular, old-fashioned theatre dressed up in smart new clothes.
- Mark Shenton