Reviews: Mad, bad and atmospheric

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Theatre: The Barbers of Surreal/Camino Real

"Here comes the science bit," twinkles Jennifer Aniston, tossing her trademark tresses while acknowledging the absurd technical twaddle of her shampoo advert. None of the alarming products launched by Forkbeard Fantasy in The Barbers of Surreal would make it past the Health and Safety Inspectors (and only the certifiably insane would dream of having their hair done by them) but, for bizarre technical wizardry, they cannot be beaten.

These positively hair-raising haircutters are more mad scientists than solicitous crimpers. There is definitely something nasty in the metaphorical woodshed behind their quaint, French hairdressing and beauty salon, and it doesn't take long before the words "genetic" and "engineering" spring to mind. When you discover the frankly unhinged Flabberjay wears an outlandishly spun moustache, another is named Salvador and has a dog called Andalou, you realise these guys know their surrealist onions.

The unique (and, on this evidence, probably quite barking) Forkbeard Fantasy create an eye-widening hybrid of film and theatre that makes Woody Allen's reality games in The Purple Rose of Cairo look flat and unimaginative. Nothing on Penny Saunders' weird and wonderful set is what it seems. Bizarre reverse images are projected on to Salvador's mirror borrowed from the Museum of Childhood and when he lifts the barbershop blind we see another film of life outside the shop projected on to where the window should be. The mindbogglingly technical joke becomes ever more elaborate as characters disappear from the shop and immediately pop up in the film and vice versa. Given that they include a strangely threatening little old lady and a giant white rabbit we find ourselves in Alice in Wonderland territory where Jabberwocky meets Laboratoire Garnier (Paris).

As the barbers' experiments take over, the peculiar, dreamlike atmosphere tips over into nightmare. Watching it is a genuinely surreal experience as you find yourself losing your grip on what's real and what's not. The overall effect is both daft and dangerous, mad and maddening as if Tim Burton were directing a horror film written by Jacques Tati.

By comparison, Tennessee Williams's dreamlike Camino Real looks positively naturalistic. The big surprise about this neglected allegorical play is that it was written between his two signature works The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, although not performed until seven years later in 1953. Characters from Casanova (a nicely enervated Peter Egan) to Marguerite Gautier (a desperate, fragile Susannah York) find themselves on the royal road or real road of the title.

Like Beckett with more laughs, they re-rehearse their loves and lives on a boulevard of broken dreams as they try to escape the marauding gas- masked street cleaners who burst in like grim reapers on day release from ER. Trapped beneath the will of a magisterial and marvellously slimy Leslie Phillips, who controls the action from a gilded balcony with a cockatoo on his shoulder, the characters strut and fret in a sprawling, theatrical road movie going nowhere.

Narrative is not the play's strong suit, but Steven Pimlott's dream of a production for the RSC goes for atmosphere and wins. Yolande Sonnabend and lighting designer Peter Mumford conjure up a superbly seedy, fetid atmosphere of corruption, tawdry elegance and lost glamour. Visually, the production is wildly eclectic - references range from Picasso's Blue Guitar to Orson Welles's Touch of Evil - but the surreal collision of styles suits the operatic demands of the text, which veers between heartfelt, poetic outpourings and bathetic humour.

Darrell D'Silva stands out as the all-American hero brought low by his big heart while Paola Dionisotti's hilarious, gimlet-eyed, gypsy fortune- teller virtually steals the show. Jason Carr's excellent score runs the gamut from a wild Hallowe'en fiesta to the muted trumpet of smoky Fifties- style jazz beneath the beckoning neon of the Ritz "Men Only" bar, which rightly suggests that the real triumph of the production is its inexorable rhythm. The play may be over-long and over-ripe but Pimlott holds on so tightly to the conflicting tones that just at the point when you're about to lose patience, you find yourself surrendering to its surreal grip.

`The Barbers of Surreal' is at the Lyric Studio, London W6 (0181-741 2311) to 21 March and then tours; `Camino Real' is in the RSC rep at the Young Vic, London SE1 (0171-928 6363).