An Explosion of noise plunges the theatre into blackness at the start of this new Zinnie Harris play, premiering as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's New Works Festival.

Harris is loved for plays which reveal how a key event can trigger extraordinary behaviour in ordinary people, and there is certainly nothing ordinary about Ruth Gemmell's Maud stealing a dead, rotting horse, and dragging it towards home before sitting upon it and beginning to eat it.

Her home town is under siege, it is wartime and in these desperate times, she has resorted to desperate measures.

Harris paints the picture even bleaker as Maud meets ageing, gentle Leonard (superb John Normington) and his eight-year-old starving grandson, drawn to the smell of the dead animal's meat. Leonard agrees to give up the child to Maud in an attempt to ensure the boy's survival, but what is her motivation for taking responsibility for another?

And when soldier Grenville (Pal Aron in arguably his best performance of the season) returns home from the war after a ten year absence, he is greeted by a wary wife. Is Maud really his spouse, and can she pass off the small boy as the child he never knew, or will the natural connection between the boy and his grandfather prove her undoing?

Harris, also director of the piece, manages to offer up a multitude of questions about identity, the casualties of war and its longer-lasting effects, over the course of ninety provocative and interesting minutes. Are any of these characters who they seem, and will the violence end simply because the war is over? The fighting may have stopped but the anger rages on, and seeing Grenville beat the child is horrifying, as is the awful fate which awaits him.

There are excellent performances all round, which, combined with Harris' intelligent writing and direction, make challenging, and occasionally uncomfortable, viewing. Certainly one to make an extra effort to see.

- Elizabeth Ferrie (reviewed at the Swan Theatre, Stratford)