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Clash of the Titans

PUBLISHED: 15:57 04 June 2008 | UPDATED: 17:16 16 August 2010

WITNESS: Eleanor McEnery as Janice Kelly.

WITNESS: Eleanor McEnery as Janice Kelly.

IT is not often that an amateur dramatics company has a break from Alan Ayckbourn in favour of something more daring, writes Kate Mead.

IT is not often that an amateur dramatics company has a break from Alan Ayckbourn in favour of something more daring, writes Kate Mead.

But the Edward Alderton Theatre (EAT) in Bexleyheath should be commended for doing just that in their recent production of Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry.

Good intentions aside however, this brave attempt was scuppered by a cast and director that were perhaps too reverent to the text to feel free to dabble in a bit of creativity.

Richard Norton-Taylor's documentary play about the inquiry into Dr David Kelly's death was shown in the Tricycle Theatre, London following the success of the similarly transcript-based play Colour of Justice about the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

This ilk of play has been continued with the likes of Guantanamo and it is open season for fringe and amateur theatre companies to use as the transcripts have no pesky copyright to worry about.

The play itself gives audiences the opportunity to relive a debate that had politicians, media and the public alike reeling with the implications of spin, lies and the 45-minute claim that justified bombing Iraq.

The debate gives no clear conclusions on either the conduct of the press or politicians but throws up some interesting questions about what truth really is.

And with such heavyweight material, it takes some balls to put this kind of production on for audiences more familiar to Charles Dickens or Mike Leigh. But to hell with playing it safe if it gets it to the masses!

Director Mark Campbell mercifully cut the play down from 12 witnesses to just six giving evidence to The Right Honourable Lord Hutton (Tony Donnelly) making the running time just under two hours.

We heard therefore from Andrew Gilligan (James Turner) and Susan Watts (Rebecca Mason), the journalists at the centre of the scandal, spin doctor Alistair Campbell (Mark Campbell, no relation), James Blitz of the Financial Times (Ken Swan), Wing Commander of the RAF and friend of Dr Kelly John Clark (Ian Saxton), chairman of the BBC Gavyn Davies (Clive Madel) and widow of Dr Kelly Janice Kelly (Eleanor McEnery).

When re-enacted it is clear that the Inquiry (naughtily spelt wrong in EAT's program) was less about the death of Dr Kelly but more about the war in Iraq and the clashing of Titan-esque egos over politics with plain disregard to the human stuck in the middle.

Though cleverly edited and with some convincing performances by McEnery, Saxton, Turner and Campbell the production itself felt static and strained.

Chris Manning-Perry who played the difficult role of James Dingemans QC was clearly reading lines for much of it and Mason seemed keener to say her lines and leave quickly than give away any feeling.

Disappointing though that was, I was more frustrated by an unimaginative approach to the play.

A static set with QC and witness facing each other and Lord Hutton squirreled away at the back of the stage made for a monotonous two hours, with the only movement being an awkward usher (Roz Betts) and the exiting and entering of the witnesses.

A little lighting, sound or just some movement for artistic and dramatic purposes could have kept the audience focused on some poignant arguments without detracting from what really happened.

In putting a piece of history on stage, there is no harm in being creative in order to get that message across.

Rather than entertain and inform, Justifying War was like a replay of a stuffy inquiry, even down to the real-time feel and the one minute's silence - which was profoundly awkward and strained.

Let's be clear here - the theatre is a place to witness a drama unfold, not to relive a moment in history to the letter.

As much as I commend the EAT taking on a groundbreaking piece of work and hope they continue to experiment with similar pieces, I do hope that they will be confident in the future to put their own mark on new material.

After all, to get the message to the masses, you sometimes need to spin it up a little.

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