Russian National Mail, Old Red Lion, London

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The Independent Culture

Russian National Mail, winner of a prestigious Golden Mask award in Russia, is an epistolary play with a difference. Our hero is Ivan Sidorovich, a destitute widower who fills his days by writing letters, first to dead friends and then, increasingly, to an astonishing array of people he has never met, from Queen Elizabeth II and Vivien Leigh to Lenin and Yuri Gagarin.

As Ivan stumbles towards delirium and death, writing and reading letters of which he is both writer and recipient, the audience is plunged into his fantasy correspondence as these figures appear in Ivan's home. In a typically Soviet detail, they have descended on Ivan to squabble over who will inherit his squalid lodgings.

Kevin McMonagle gives a convincing, tragicomic performance as Ivan. His downfall is attributed to the death of his wife, portrayed in the affecting opening scenes by a strikingly life-like puppet whose wooden-spoon arms and brown- paper body recall both her domestic duties and her professional role as a post-office worker.

In contrast, the supporting cast of characters are given little space to develop beyond caricature, although they attack their rather one-dimensional roles with zeal.

Just as Ivan wanders around his flat, plucking letters from inside drawers and off the floor, Bogaev, too, plunders the rich seam of great Russian literature. His play touches upon the eternal themes of the motherland's burdensome historical legacy, the post-Soviet obsession with accommodation, the small man's futile struggle against bureaucracy and, of course, madness - a mainstay of Russian writers, from Pushkin's delusional Evgeny in The Bronze Horseman to Gogol's countless anti-heroes.

Noah Birksted-Breen, the translator and director, retains this very Russian spirit while at the same time rendering the piece accessible to a British audience with his fresh, unstilted translation. All in all, a successful launch for Sputnik.

To 10 September (020-7837 7816)

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