Surreal truths in the homecoming

Of the many adjectives we use to describe theatre, "surreal" is London's meaningless mot du jour. Nowadays it is used to indicate a vague kind of delightful originality, a jolly sister to the "experimental" and "avant-garde"--two parts louche 1920s intellectualism to one part hard-hitting 1960s liberalism. We saw last year's "Surreal Things" at the V&A. We went all wobbly at Dali at the Tate Modern. We loved that clay thing at the Mime festival and David Haig going nuts in "The Sea".

We associate surreality with insouciance, with artists being naughty and having fun. But there is a very different, painful surrealism in Michael Attenborough's new interpretation of "The Homecoming", now on at the Almeida Theatre (and also on Broadway). I found the experience of watching Harold Pinter's controversial masterpiece uncomfortable. It starts so well: a darkly funny and recognisable portrait of 1970s masculinity, with a petty, petulant north London patriarch named Max bullying his two sons--sinister Lenny and bouncing boxer Joey--as well as his fussy chauffeur brother Sam. All of it takes place in the confines of their bleak front room. Then the prodigal son Teddy returns with his wife Ruth, and the action devolves from awkward to disconcertingly bizarre.