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Guard dog's eye view of Stalin's gulags

Faithful Ruslan - The Story of a Guard Dog, Belgrade B2, Coventry, to September 16.

I didn't really know what to expect from this play and am still not entirely sure I picked up all the nuances. But it's an intriguing tale - looking at the end of Stalin's infamous gulags through the eyes of a well-trained guard dog who, in 1953, suddenly finds himself out of work.

And this particular guard dog, who pants on the end of a lead, howls like a wolf and runs free in the most spectacular choreographed movement, is actually human.

Max Keeble plays his canine part to perfection, supported by an astonishing ensemble cast from the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow.

Together they move seamlessly from being prisoners, to guards, to dogs, even chickens at one point. This isn't Animal Farm - but there are echoes of that, and it is 100 years since the Russian Revolution.

This play was adapted from the translation of a novel by Georgi Vladimov, whose own mother spent time in a gulag towards the end of Stalin's purges.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson decided she didn't want a War Horse-style puppet to play the part of Ruslan, and watching Max in action you can see she made the right choice - but perhaps not about the overall length of this piece which, despite having dozens of shiver-up-the-spine cameo touches, does tend to drag a little after the interval. Ten minutes of tightening up could make a huge difference.

Among the shiver moments were certainly Paul Brendan's "Shabby Man" - released but with no home to return to - Isabelle Joss's "Stiura" with her queue of male callers, and Martin Donaghy's role as the master, trapped in an ideology just as firmly as faithful Ruslan.

My abiding memory will be of the sheer physicality of all the performances, the pathos, the music, singing and mesmerising interaction between all the players.

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