Theatre / 606 THEATRE Lyric Studio, Hammersmith

There are some baffling things going on in Hammersmith in the slippery form of Fernando Arrabal's loquacious mind play. Written in 1965, the piece has the feel of an extended game of Chinese whispers in which ideas resurface in ever more contorted shapes from one scene to the next. It is only when you get to the end that the nature of the riddle (to which there is, of course, no solution) becomes clear. In 606 Theatre's production, however, it reveals itself as a work that is as preoccupied with candour as artful capers. Though Arrabal ends up in a realm where private fantasy has eclipsed a more pedestrian reality, the events that precede it are bound together by a bizarre dream logic. The effect is by turn intriguing, infuriating and chilling, and a graphic example of what the playwright called his "Theatre Panique".

At first sight the scene looks set for a textbook case-study from the school of the absurd. A man meets a woman on a park-bench. He has a deformed body, a monstrous mother and a well-developed fetish for whips, chains and plastic dolls. She has an over-zealous lover and an appetite for sado- masochistic fantasies. With just a nod to its absurdist forebears, Arrabal's play rushes on, taking its bearings from points of uneasy eroticism, and building up its distinctive claustrophobic world in which the characters hover on the edge of an abyss. Through this landscape drift the mangled spectres of childhood trauma, blasphemy, Oedipal longing and Freudian castration anxiety, offering a grotesque, unnerving tinge to a world in which happiness and security are inextricably linked to fear and death.

Though the play fizzes with perturbing enigmas, the Spanish playwright balances his tawdry philosophy with a robust humour. In Jean Benedetti's translation, the writing is witty and buoyant, with a quick-fire dialogue and sudden comic changes of style. Arrabal's world is at once perverse yet alluring, and 606 Theatre knows exactly how to balance these qualities in a sultry yet charged atmosphere. As the action transfers indoors, Dorian Lough's strikingly detailed performance as Cavanosa (the man on the bench) lends the character moments of calm dignity. Attaining a sort of humanity through deficiency, he reveals chinks of vulnerability behind a tough facade, without loosening his grip on the drama's cruel comedy.

There are times when the play could do with a bit more narrative dynamic and when its occasionally antiquated absurdity works better in the mind's eye than on stage. Gordon Anderson's direction sometimes lets the tension sag, but largely grasps the unforced rhythm of the piece, creating a dowdy, crazy atmosphere where the playful and macabre form an arresting mix with the ritualistic. The stylistic tic that drives the production, however, is the intensity of the performances by the cast of four. Against the playful perspective of Tom Hadley's filmic backdrop, they forge a minutely observed and oddly affecting evening with an acrid aftertaste.

n To 15 July (box-office: 0181-741 2311)

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