Les Parents Terribles

Jean Cocteau, translated by Jeremy Sams
Donmar Trafalgar
Trafalgar Studio 2
(2010)

Les Parents Terribles publicity graphic

With just three rows of seats in a horseshoe shape, Trafalgar Studio 2 makes for a very intimate West End stage; in some ways this is perfect for Les Parents Terribles, in other ways it isn’t. One vital ingredient for this production was an incredible cast that could stand close up scrutiny: an ingredient it certainly had.

In a terribly dramatic opening, wild haired George bursts onto the stage calling frantically for his sister-in-law Leo. Not far behind is his equally wild haired wife Yvonne who staggers onto the stage calling for sugar. Calm in contrast, Leo provides the sugar and sits with her sister whilst she recovers from the fit, induced by the insulin she’s dependent on. As George returns to ‘inventing’, Leo explains some home truths of motherhood. Yvonne and we soon realise that the family has an almost incestuous relationship: whilst Leo is in love with George, Yvonne’s world revolves around that of her son, twenty-two year old Michael. When he appears, their affection for each other is somewhat disturbing. So when Michael announces he’s in love with a girl called Madeleine, his mother’s world is turned upside-down. Even more so when her husband realises he knows Madeleine.

From start to finish, the acting is superb and keeps up the energy of beginning. Elaine Cassidy is made for intimate stages; the audience are held in breathless pity over her portrayal of Madeleine as she stands frozen to the spot with tears pouring down her cheeks.

Sylvestra Le Touzel as Leo is sharp, calm and still, a beautiful contrast to Frances Barber who flies manically into fits of rage and self pity as Yvonne. Both are funny in different ways: Barber's switches of emotion are perfectly timed and her wildest rage, in which she snarls on all fours like a lion with tears in her eyes, manages to be both comical and alarming. On the other hand, Le Touzel's icy deliverance and dry wit is well judged, the ideal foil for her eccentric family.

Tom Byam Shaw provides the naïve and charming Michael, whilst Anthony Calf as George excels most in his conversation with Madeleine; he is spiteful, hurt, in control and beaten all at the same time.

For such a close audience, the direction by Chris Rolls feels slightly over-choreographed at times, particularly in scenes between Michael and his mother. The constant movement and overt affection is overdone and overly disturbing when paired with the dialogue, detracting from the subtlety of it and leaving no room for ambiguity. Where Rolls does well is in bringing out a clear emotional narrative of each character.

The script by Jean Cocteau, translated by Jeremy Sams, is extravagent and yet always believable, and the question mark left over the ending is far more chilling and satisfying than an obvious ending would have been. The dialogue is peppered with dramatic irony and satire, yet is always emotionally driven. Some of the tantrums and arguments are a touch long, but this is barely noticeable thanks to the wonderful and highly intelligent acting.

Running until 18th December

Reviewer: Emma Berge