“Grandfather collected semi-colons…”
The final play in the first residency of the Donmar Warehouse’s Resident Assistant Directors scheme at the Trafalgar Studios 2 is Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles. Set in a crowded bohemian household in 1930s Paris, it examines the dynamics of an extremely dysfunctional family. The tempestuous Yvonne worships her son Michael and he revels in their almost incestuously close relationship but when he declares that he has fallen in love with a girl called Madeleine, her world is shattered and histrionics ensue. Also living with them is Yvonne’s spinster sister Leo who has long been nurturing a candle for her brother-in-law George but matters are made even worse when he realises that his son’s lover is actually his own mistress as well.
Rather pleasingly this is a proper Donmar-quality cast and they did not disappoint, attached as they are to the best play that has been featured in this run. Elaine Cassidy and Tom Byam Shaw suggest the promise and escape of young love with their wide-eyed naïveté and charming connection; Cassidy is particularly heart-breaking when the sheer selfishness of this family threatens to overwhelm her, leaving her stricken on the floor. Anthony Calf as failed inventor George exudes a floppy bumbling self-pity but capable of a barbarous cruelty as he seeks to get his own way no matter what.
Frances Barber’s Yvonne is a role perfectly suited to her, full of manic episodes, grand gestures, violent flashes of rage that leave crawling on all fours and hoarse of voice. She is well matched though by Sylvestra Le Touzel as the starched Leo, so very cool and calm as the household flaps around her, constantly checking her pristine appearance in the mirrored walls and exerting a psychotic level of control over her own tightly buttoned emotions.
Cocteau’s writing is often farcical and this is matched by Rolls’ direction of the frenetic episodes in the apartment, but the general tone is more tragicomic which makes the show more dramatically satisfying as we careen towards the unexpected ending. Andrew D Edwards’s design makes brilliant use of the limited space in Studio 2 using mirrored walls and ceiling to constantly remind us of the narcissism of this whole family, and perhaps of ourselves. Altogether, this made for a pleasingly sophisticated experience: genuinely witty, comic drama (thanks to Jeremy Sams’ translation), impeccably acted by a quality cast and consequently, well worth the ticket price.