"National hero or predatory paedophile?" It's an arresting tag line, yet far from being a story ripped from today's headlines So Great a Crime is a court-martial tale from the reign of Queen Victoria - a prescient piece of scheduling by the Finborough Theatre that must have been planned well before Operation Yewtree entered the collective consciousness.

In fact writer-director David Gooderson’s interest in the rise and fall of Sir Hector MacDonald has less to do with sexual prurience than the examination of class snobbery. When “Fighting Mac” (as the army general was affectionately known) was the commanding officer in Ceylon he fell into conflict with the high-born coterie who ran the colony, and this self-serving élite may or may not have trumped up spurious allegations of sexual impropriety in order to rid themselves of a Gaelic-speaking upstart who was clearly 'not one of us'.

So Great a Crime is avowedly speculative, reconstructed of necessity from incomplete evidence as, states the playwright, "almost all the relevant documents have disappeared". Gooderson is not, though, a writer to tread the middle ground; rather he has a view and he sticks to it. He is abetted by a complex, edgy performance of the role by Stuart McGugan, one of several outstanding actors who lift the script above the workaday. The formidable Elizabeth Counsell, double-cast, brings nuanced depth to two very different titled ladies, while James Woolley and Philip York sneer for England at the 'crofter' (as they disparage their prey) and his supposed catamites.

Gooderson takes a while to strike the right tone for his play (the framing device showing Hector's coffin in transit from London to Edinburgh may be a plausible way to introduce multi-role characterisation to the audience, but it is clumsily done) and the first act is marred by a number of small infelicities before ending on a large one: a would-be comic treatment of The Church's One Foundation which is not only mirth-free but is also visited on a hymn that Alan Bennett sent up with much deadlier wit in Forty Years On.

Yet act two is sure-footed from first beat to last as the unhappy Hector spirals down towards the unjust inevitability of his fate. McGugan is magnificent here and he more than earns the indignation that ripples through the audience on his behalf. Indeed, the actor's achievement, and that of his writer-director, is to honour the play's double-edged title and ensure that after eleven decades the maligned Sir Hector MacDonald finally has his day in court.

- by Mark Valencia

Photo: Stuart McGugan and Hayward Morse (StageShots)