Jean Cocteau's feverish Les Parents Terribles scandalised even liberal pre-war Paris with its giddy portrayal of an overtly incestuous mother-son relationship and zig-zagging affections of almost farcical complexity. But beneath these emotional flailings criss-cross a geometrical precision and fascination with orderliness.
Cheek by jowl, actor by audience member, in Studio 2 at the Trafalgar, we look on with increasing alarm as two households give up their secrets. Amid the bohemian chaos known as the gypsy camp in which George, a failed inventor, and his hypochondriac wife, Yvonne, stumble through a low-lit half-life, Yvonne's sturdy sister, Leo, supports the hopeless couple financially and emotionally. The mysterious absence for days of the adored only child, Michael, leads us to a contrasting existence: the bright and airy home of tidy new girlfriend Madeleine, a bookbinder. What mother would not be overjoyed at such a sensible new liaison? Yvonne, that's who, besotted with her 22-year-old baby, the flesh-paddling and secret jokes clearly accepted within the gypsy camp. But there is a parallel situation: neglected George has taken a young lover, and it is the same girl. And distasteful as the mother-son affair is, can Yvonne's overpowering obsession compare with the creepiness of apparently mild-mannered George who has told the girl she resembles his (non-existent) dead daughter?
Les Parents Terribles is Cocteau's Oedipus, on opium. It plunges through Chekhovian histrionics, the misreadings and deceptions of Molière, and bows at the altar of Racine. Shot through with eccentric humour and nods to Surrealism – Grandfather collected semi-colons, George is perfecting an underwater machine gun – Les Parents Terribles also delights in outrageous self-delusion, as in Yvonne's appalling "Michael tells me everything. We're more like chums." The patient's in here, Dr Freud.
This terrific production, directed by Chris Rolls, storms along. With Anthony Calf as weary George, Frances Barber as the overweening Yvonne, and Sylvestra Le Touzel as competent Leo, this bunch of misfits both gels and does not gel in that family way, leaving it to box-fresh Tom Byam Shaw, as Michael, to energise the everyday, leaping and folding up like a faun and bubbling over with an uncontainable love for luminous Madeleine (Elaine Cassidy) that only the play's revelations can hone.
Designer Andrew D Edwards, in his quest for disarray, might have benefited from a look round my house, a few shawls on the floor not even approaching squalor. But with Leo buttoned into her tweed and silk, taut as a lampshade, Yvonne mad-haired in black lace then insect-like in her suit and sunglasses, and George slicked down into an effigy of Edward VIII, Edwards's Paris and Parisians teeter entertainingly between tailoring and tattiness.
Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso and Edith Piaf were at the opening of Les Parents Terribles in 1938; the year before, the first night of The Cradle Will Rock was a less glitzy but nonetheless triumphant affair. The House Un-American Activities Committee, parodied in the musical itself as the Liberty Committee, withdrew funding from such radical work, and the company was locked out of the theatre. A defiant, 22-year-old Orson Welles moved the show to a larger theatre on 59th Street, but the actors were banned by Equity from appearing. When the composer, Marc Blitzstein, started to perform the full score from the piano, singing all the parts, the players joined in from their seats in the auditorium, until the entire piece was being performed, after all, but off-stage. The sensation made the front pages, and months of fully staged performances followed.
The production at the Arcola, the last in the theatre's current building before it moves to the old Reeves paintworks down the road, is, therefore, a collector's item, but in its own right it is a slim affair. Bertolt Brecht had encouraged Blitzstein to work up a musical sketch about a prostitute, proposing that he look at other forms of prostitution. So a series of caricatures, pegged out along the 20-year span of the piece, illustrate that the integrity and independence of the press, the law, the church, medicine, and even artists, can be compromised by the wealthy and influential.
Looming large, in all senses,over a steel-dependent community, yard owner Mr Mister, the Everyman of industry, buys off anyone who comes between him and his commercial ambitions. Musically, this episodic journey is like eating soup with a fork – the promising content just keeps dribbling away. But there are glimmers of hope in the second half, notably a show-stopping torch song by Josie Benson. The many pastiche numbers – tango, Bach chorale, Charleston – probably come to life better with an orchestra than, as here, on the piano alone, however nobly played by Bob Broad.
Other pleasing performances in Mehmet Ergen's production are from Russell Morton as the sportsman who, with his brains pickled in testosterone and stuffed in his jockstrap, is just the sort of thinker the committee needs, and Chris Jenkins, upright and clear-visioned as the foreman. The Arcola deserves its shiny new home: it is a clever housekeeper, skilled at making a little go a long way.
Closure also threatens by Act Two in Beauty and the Beast. The owner of the theatre, we are soberly told from the stage, believes boys and girls do not want fairy stories any more. Cue pause for gratifying protests from the children in the house. Audience participation was a bonus for my young companion, who has done the sitting quietly thing elsewhere. The fairytale placed within a music hall framework, we nip in and out of the action narrated by conjuror/MC Justin Salinger and hapless assistant, Cecile (Kate Duchêne).
Director Katie Mitchell was unlikely to leave gender stereotypes intact: in this version of the story first written by a French noblewoman in need of financial independence, Beauty (Sian Clifford) wears the trousers and Cecile gets the upper hand. The story is partly acted out in creamy 18th-century rooms, partly in Matthew Robins's expressive silhouette puppetry.
"This would be good for parents to take their children to," my borrowed nine-year-old offered, sagely. But playing to the young is perilous, as Mark Arends, playing the wonderfully loping Beast, knows. One small voice called out, upon the Prince's release from his beastly state: "He's not handsome!" It wasn't us, honest.
'Les Parents Terribles' (0844 871 7624) to 18 Dec; 'The Cradle Will Rock' (020-7503 1646) to 18 Dec; 'Beauty and the Beast' (020-7452 3000) to 4 Jan
Kate Bassett braces herself for a family yuletide in Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings.