Les Parents Terribles

The Donmar’s Trafalgar Studio showcase season for its Resident Assistant Directors comes to a darkly glittering close with a dream cast portraying a nightmare family in Jean Cocteau’s 1938 farcical tragedy, Les Parents Terribles.

Every character is screwed up to some degree in this hothouse drama of heated emotions and misplaced love. Middle-aged and middleclass, Yvonne and husband George live in mock bohemian chaos which her orderly spinster sister Leo can barely keep in check. Since the birth of their son Michael, Yvonne has devoted herself to the boy, at the expense of her spouse who now spends his time messing with useless inventions – currently an underwater machine gun.

But now, at the age of 22, (and still living with his parents) Michael has fallen in love with Madeleine, a bookbinder just a few years his senior, and everything starts to implode.

Les Parents Terribles’ claustrophobically mirrored design emphasises the intensity of the relationships in this expertly judged and cruelly funny production.

Frances Barber’s dishevelled Yvonne (a diabetic semi-invalid who prefers to live in gloom and clings to Michael with the ferocious possessiveness of a lioness) switches from histrionics to helplessness in the blink of an eye.

Sylvestra Le Touzel’s soignée Leo, not a hair out of place, is every bit as impressive – a self-confessed paradox, you’re never quite sure what emotions are suppressed beneath that calm, immaculate exterior or how strong are her feelings for Anthony Calf’s unexpectedly determined George who, to complicate matters even further, has been having a secret affair with Elaine Cassidy’s touchingly vulnerable Madeleine.

Written in just eight days, there’s a feverish, melodramatic quality to this conflict between the old and the young, and director Chris Rolls’ expertly judged production hits all the right notes as the dysfunctional setup threatens to collapse.


Trafalgar Studios (2), Whitehall, SW1A 2DY
Tube: Charing Cross
0844 871 7632
Until 18th December

– Louise Kingsley