Jean Cocteau once drily remarked that he knew "how far to go too far". It's a close-run thing, though, in Les Parents Terribles, the play he penned in 1938 during an eight-day opium binge. But that's all part of the blackly outrageous amusement. If Sophocles were to collaborate with Feydeau on an Oedipally-driven boulevard comedy, the result might be like this, a piece that calls to mind Marx's comment about historical events: that they occur "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce".
Chris Rolls revives the play now in a mordantly funny and adroitly unsettling production. At times, the proceedings, as staged here, suggest an unholy cross between the camp melodrama of Love's Whirlwind and the hilariously effortful restraint of the meet-the-folks scenes in La Cage aux Folles. The show luridly lives down to its title as the bourgeois Parisian parents treat the younger generation to a macabre master class in peevishly self-centred immaturity.
Frances Barber pulls all the stops out, and then some, in her grotesque drama-queen act as Yvonne, the raddled, slatternly diabetic who has an unhealthily close relationship with her son, Michael (a strikingly clean-cut and conflicted Tom Byam Shaw). The problems start when the 22-year-old mummy's boy seeks to escape from the hothouse atmosphere of home by revealing that he is in love with Madeleine (Elaine Cassidy), a young bookbinder. This drives Yvonne to paroxysms of jealous possessiveness and Michael's failed inventor father, George (Anthony Calf), to panic and despair because Madeleine just happens to be his secret mistress.
Asked if the son's news makes her happy, Barber looks about as overjoyed as Hecuba surveying the fall of Troy. The chaise longue certainly takes some punishment in this Thirties-set production, with Yvonne throwing herself over it in an orgy of banshee-shrieking histrionics. Andrew D Edwards's elegant design furnishes the Parisian apartment with mirrored walls and ceiling, which underlines not only the hermetic narcissism of this doggedly Bohemian family but the theatrical self-consciousness of the play itself.
Given the many references to the gypsy-camp chaos of their circumstances, it's odd, though, to find the drawing room so immaculate. It doesn't provide enough of a contrast to the calm of Madeleine's quarters or a sufficient affront to Leo, the order-obsessed spinster sister-in-law who still holds a candle for George. The father's ineffectuality and ugly blackmailing vindictiveness are vividly conjoined by Calf, while Cassidy brings a movingly naked emotional honesty to the distressing scene where George tries to bully Madeleine into a trumped-up renunciation of his son. The performance of the evening, however, comes from Sylvestra Le Touzel, whose Leo patrols the drama like some reproving matron in a hospital ward full of dangerous lunatics. "I'm a paradox," the character declares, and you can well believe that as Le Touzel subtly hints that Leo is playing a longer, cagier and more self-interested game. Recommended.
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