Theatre NOTHING TO PAY Battersea Arts Centre, London

Caradoc Evans's Nothing to Pay is a Welsh mock-odyssey; the tale of a draper who leaves his village, first for the town, then London, in insatiable pursuit of wealth. It is the tale of a man - Amos Morgan - who is possessed and ruined by zealous smallmindedness. And its satiric finger is pointed relentlessly at the church for instilling a fatal combination of sheep-like thoughtlessness and rampant self-interest in its flock. No wonder it was shouted down when it was published in 1930. "Filth masquerading as truth," stormed the Western Mail. It may since have passed into relative obscurity, but it clearly touched a nerve.

And still can. Simon Harris's bold resurrection and dramatisation for his Swansea-based company Thin Language, provides about as bleak a glimpse of death-bed regret as you can stomach and mixes it with dark comedy. Wheezing his last in the company of his alter-ego, an alcoholic, death- craving devil (Richard Harrington), Morgan relives his life from childhood days in Kerry, where he aspires to be both draper and preacher ("so I can earn money seven days a week"). The two worlds are fused, or rather confused, by the honeyed Welsh rhetoric he hears all around him ("A lie is only a lie when it sounds like a lie," his father explains). If the draper cannot come to God, God must come to the draper: pictures of our Lord in the window, shop rules that resemble the Ten Commandments.

The production's strength derives in part from a vestigial sense of the novel behind it. Characters interpose a "he said" or "she said" after a remark, which both turns a humble third-person into a hypocritical veneer and unconsciously reveals the extent to which a community have forfeited control of their lives. The staging is minimal, conducted on a traverse space: a coffin at one end at the place of Morgan's birth and packing cases at the other, the shop area. Like the shopkeepers, the audience is seduced by verbal opulence, only to be shaken by menacing tableaux.

Darren Lawrence's angel-faced, tight-lipped, cold-eyed Morgan makes for compulsive viewing. His quietly venomous acts of betrayal alternate with Scrooge-like acts of pettiness - "You even waste your tears," he scolds his wife (Buddug Morgan). "Drop them in the vinegar so there may be more." He is perfectly counterpointed by the indefatiguably oleaginous preacher Eben Lewis Pembroke (Ian Jeffs), flattering his way into traders' lives: "I see you have a glass frost in your windows, ah, it is just like the holy frost."

That the cast manages to punch its way through cardboard caricature is no mean feat. There is a tired inevitability about the cruelty of this world, its convenient deaths and illicit abortions. What really brings you up short are moments such as when Morgan's wife scavenges for cash from her husband's corpse. Behind the easily condemned greed is its capitalist fount: need.

n To Sat, BAC, Lavender Hill, London, SW11 (0171-223 2223); 26-28 Jul, University of Wales, Swansea (01792 296883)

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