The Pillowman, National Theatre, London

National Theatre, London

Martin McDonagh has built up an enviable reputation as a writer of postmodern melodramas and black comedies. But where previous work, such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, fed off existing Irish forms, in his new play he is shooting in the European dark. The result, while clever, has a feeling of hollowness.

McDonagh's subject is clear: the dangerous power of literature. The hero, Katurian, is a writer who has been arrested by the police in a totalitarian state. His crime is not, as we initially assume, political subversiveness: it is that his short stories, dwelling on persecuted children, bear a resemblance to some child murders. Although Katurian protests his innocence, it transpires that his retarded brother committed the crimes. The question facing Katurian is whether he should sacrifice his own life and that of his brother in order to ensure the preservation of his stories.

As a moral dilemma, it never acquires dramatic momentum for two reasons. One is that Katurian is so convinced of the sanctity of literature that he will do anything, even confess to crimes he has not committed, to save his stories: no internal doubt means no drama. But McDonagh never convinces you of the reality of the totalitarian background: it is a strange, secular tyranny where New Testament iconography is part of common myth and where the interrogating cops owe as much to Z-Cars as to Kafka.

Admittedly the police-cell scenes, largely because of the presence of Jim Broadbent, have a louche vitality; and, in one inspired touch, McDonagh shows that literary vanity is not confined to writers. Broadbent, as one of the two cops, at one points tells his own allegorical story which he thinks outshines anything related by his prisoner. It is wonderful to watch Broadbent's face light up with pride and his Lincolnshire vowels acquire a swelling authority: writing, you feel, is what defines him more than detection.

There is also good work from David Tennant as the imprisoned writer, Adam Godley as his literature-imitating brother and Nigel Lindsay as the hard cop who cannot wait to brandish the electrodes. John Crowley's Cottesloe production also creates a genuine Gothic frisson in a series of scenes illustrating the parental persecution that has warped Katurian's imagination. But, in the end, you sense that McDonagh is playing with big issues to do with literature's power to outlast tyranny rather than writing from any kind of experience.

· In rep until January. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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