THEATRE: The Wolves; The Bridewell, London

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The Independent Culture
You certainly couldn't accuse Michael Punter of working within too narrow a range. From the winningly honest and good-humoured introduction to the text of his latest play, you learn that, at 27, he's already polished off such diverse projects as an adaptation of a Greek tragedy, a Victorian fantasy and a two-hander about a 13th-century monk. With the past so evidently his oyster, the present - except in historical mufti - hasn't until now, had much of a look-in and even here, it seems, it was touch and go. "It was," he reveals, "with a grudging, shoulder-shrugging spirit that I put aside my play about St Augustine of Hippo (doubtless another box-office winner!) and set about something contemporary."

The drama that relegated the saint to a creative backburner is The Wolves, premiered now in Simon Usher's well-acted but ploddingly paced production for Paines Plough. Operating on distinctly varying levels of success, it puts you in mind, at times, of a sort of cross between Gogol's The Government Inspector and David Edgar's Pentecost. Like the latter, it tries to take stock of the post-communist world from the perspective of a much-invaded fictional East European backwater.

Punter, with his quiet relish for the absurd, has infectious fun making up the past of this place and its people. The cock-up theory of history is, for example, amply illustrated by the central family. We learn that Sylvester Morand's Odyn, a hard-pressed pig farmer, destroyed his chances of freedom in the old dispensation on the still talked-about occasion when he denied the dictator's football team their statutory victory by a spectacular 89th-minute save. His son, meanwhile, accidentally started the recent revolution with a student jape and died an equally inadvertent martyr's death when the bronze statue of the dictator to which he was clinging collapsed through faulty installation. For an oppressed pig farmer, it's a further little irony that his live-in, dourly disgruntled, intellectual daughter Anya (Jane Hazlegrove) has established a vegetarian regime.

"History crashes through here every 50 years or so," declares the desperate Odyn, as he hits the vodka bottle "and we are left clinging to the wreckage. We are not, and never will be, the writers of history, we are the written on." But where Pentecost devised - in the competitions sparked by the discovery of a possibly landmark 12th-century fresco - a superb vantage point from which to explore this theme of national identity and the ideological disarray left by communism's collapse, The Wolves fails to find an equivalently fruitful focus.

As in The Government Inspector, we are shown the effects on a community when wrong assumptions are made about a newly arrived stranger. In this case, played by Crispin Redman, he's the sole survivor of a plane crash; is this figure really Flinders, an LSE professor, star prophet of the free market and intellectual pin-up of Nicholas Blane's Tchitiri, a West-worshipping former mayor who comes out of hiding to meet his hero?

Because the survivor remains obscure to the point of being a cipher, there's little narrative drive and you can't work up much interest in the relationship he keeps almost developing with Odyn's daughter. And given that he can't understand a word they're saying, characters seem to spend an inordinate amount of time confiding their deepest feelings to him. It's in its deft, low-key comedy rather than in its more earnestly portentous moments that The Wolves shows marked promise.

To 29 March. Bride Lane, Fleet St, London EC4 (0171-936 3456)

Paul Taylor

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