thu 02/12/2021

Les Parents Terribles, Trafalgar Studios | reviews, news & interviews

Les Parents Terribles, Trafalgar Studios

Les Parents Terribles, Trafalgar Studios

Cocteau's opium-fuelled farce is given full throttle by Frances Barber and co

This is the final production in the Donmar Warehouse’s 12-week season at Trafalgar Studios (which showcases the work of its resident assistant directors) and is a revival of Jeremy Sams’s translation of Jean Cocteau’s play - first seen in Sean Mathias’s acclaimed production at the National Theatre in 1994, with a cast that included Jude Law, Alan Howard and Sheila Gish.

Director Chris Rolls, following in the wake of Lower Ninth and Novecento in the autumn season, has his work cut out with a play that often teeters dangerously between farce and melodrama. It’s not Cocteau’s greatest work - indeed he wrote it in just eight days when he was off his noodle on opium - but it’s an interesting curiosity that scandalised even bohemian Paris when it was first performed there in 1938.

Rolls has kept the Thirties Paris setting and Andrew D Edwards’s simple but effective set neatly evokes the period. We are in George and Yvonne’s apartment - “We’re not artists, we’re not bohemians, we’re bourgeois”  - where she, a diabetic, spends most of her time in bed. The unseen other rooms are a mess and as the play opens Yvonne (Frances Barber) is having what we come to understand is an everyday display of the vapours, while George (Anthony Calf), an “inventor” of such vital things as an underwater machine gun, flaps about in a panic. Into this chaos comes Yvonne’s sister, Leo (the superb Sylvestra Le Touzel), a prissy housekeeper who is in charge of the family money and loves order, the yin to Yvonne’s yang.

Yvonne and George nervously await the arrival of their 22-year-old son, Michael (Tom Byam Shaw), who has lately taken to staying out. Yvonne loves Michael with an almost incestuous (and creep-inducing) passion, but he has fallen in love with Madeleine (nicely played by Elaine Cassidy), whom he met at college. Michael doesn’t know, but is about to find out, that Madeleine is his father's mistress, and that Leo has a really big pash for George. Truly it’s the family version of La Ronde.

As Yvonne tries to destroy Michael’s affair with “intruder” Madeleine and George tries to cover up his dalliance, the whole thing unravels in a series of deceits, lies and subterfuge, most of it orchestrated by the increasingly vile Leo, whose almost pathological need for order contrasts comically with the mayhem going on around her.

There’s an awful lot of emoting occurring here (Barber certainly gives it full choke) and never has a chaise longue seen so much action - almost everyone in the cast faints dramatically upon it at some point. Although Sams’s translation has some clunking exposition and a few longueurs, the play’s more torrid moments are frequently undercut with a nicely comic line - “Parents know best,” Yvonne says dismissively as Michael whines about being told what to do.

In the final act, which has yet more histrionics and is played heavily for farce, everyone is revealed in their true, self-serving colours: Yvonne is a  monster, George and Michael are weak fools, Leo is a manipulative schemer and only Madeleine, it would appear, has any heart.

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