The Theatreguide.London Review
Les Parents Terribles
Trafalgar Studios November-December 2010
If it weren't so brilliantly written and beautifully played, Jean Cocteau's 1938 play could be a bit of a mess (which is how I remember the 1994 National Theatre production).
Seemingly unable to make its mind up what kind of play it wants to be, it swings from social satire to melodrama to bedroom farce to tragedy and then around the circle again, while the actors fight to retain some sense of continuity and the audience tries to keep up.
And if it never does quite hang together, even as well as it is done here, it is so good at each step along the way that you are willing to keep shifting gears to enjoy what's going on at the moment.
A self-styled bohemian family - father is a mad inventor, mother an aesthete who rarely gets out of bed, only maiden aunt actually keeps things functioning - have effectively infantilised their son through pampering.
But the lad manages somehow to meet and fall in love with an actual girl, cuing shock and horror all around (except for the sensible aunt), especially when she turns out to be the father's secret bit on the side.
Things turn nasty for a while, as mother has various sorts of vapours and father blackmails the girl into rejecting his son, but auntie arranges for everything to work out all right just in time for a final tragic twist.
Clearly a play traversing such choppy waters needs a firm hand on the tiller and a crew - yes, I'm getting as bored with this metaphor as you are – able to shift direction as quickly as the wind and waves do.
And as I've suggested, if director Chris Rolls can't quite make it all seem part of the same play, he does lead his cast to make each scene work in itself, mainly by playing each mode - farce, tragedy, melodrama - full out,without reservation or ironic distance.
So the comic scenes are comic and the dark scenes are dark and the romantic scenes are romantic, and we just don't let it bother us that a minute ago everything and everyone had a different tone.
Leading the cast is Frances Barber as the monstrously smothering mother, completely without any sense of self-awareness or objectivity beyond her own immediate needs and whims.
By not holding back for a second, Barber makes her hilarious when she's meant to be comic and frightening when she's not, and does manage to let us see that that's the same character throughout and it's only our perceptions that change.
Sylvestra Le Touzel is a strong match for her as the aunt with her own psychological tics and quirks but the saving ability to acknowledge the existence andf eelings of others.
Anthony Calf is alternately droll and menacing as the father, the character who has to change back and forth the most during the action, and Tom Byam Shaw and Elaine Cassidy are appropriately attractive as the lovers.
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