Les Parents Terribles, Trafalgar Studios, London

Family values take a drubbing at the hands of Jean Cocteau in this, the final piece in the Donmar’s showcase for promising directors. Cocteau’s 1938 drama, with its claustrophobic atmosphere and ingrown characters, is admirably suited to the confines of Trafalgar Studio 2, and Chris Rolls’s fine production makes the most of this. Andrew D. Edward’s set is wonderfully louche: it plasters the walls and ceilings with dark mirrors, creating the oppressive interior of the family apartment and reflecting the narcissism on display.

Cocteau wrote the drama in eight opium-soaked days, and the whole thing has a crazed, sickly hue, switch-backing between tragedy and comedy. Rolls pitches his staging beautifully, playing up the barbed comedy without losing the bitterness and unsettling intensity.

The terrible parents of the title are Yvonne and George, a raddled bourgeois couple with bohemian pretences. He (Anthony Calf, splendidly dishevelled) is a weak-willed “inventor”. She (Frances Barber) is an invalid, incapacitated in part by her diabetes but much more by her petulance and histrionic temper. Barber throws herself into the part with impressive abandon, collapsing in heaps all over the set, writhing wildly on her chaise longue, erupting into wheezing outbursts of grief or rage. She’s camp, capricious and manipulative, but she can also be distressingly pathetic, as well as genuinely scary when she lets rip.

She lets rip quite a bit, as it happens, because she discovers that not only has her beloved son Michael (whom she adores with a creepy, incestuous infatuation) had the temerity to fall in love, but that Madeleine, his would-be fiancée is also George’s mistress. This unfortunate state of affairs does not improve when everyone tries to meddle to fix it to their own advantage. Michael and Madeleine, played by Tom Byam Shaw and Elaine Cassidy as sweet but damaged, are tossed about like boats in a storm.

A picture of a wilfully immature generation emerges in which everybody is looking after number one. And the performance of the evening comes from Sylvestra Le Touzel as Yvonne’s starchily sensible sister. Le Touzel is superb, briskly folding up shawls and plumping up cushions, as if she were an Enid Blyton character who had somehow wandered into the House of Atreus. But all the time she too is nastily scheming and in the end it is she who wins out in this tale of rancid love and destructive passion. ()


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