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THEATRE: In the family way: Paul Taylor reviews Sean Mathias's production of Les Parents Terribles at the Lyttelton . . .

There was a time not so long ago when you could scarcely open a theatre programme without finding the Larkin line 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad,' prominently quoted in it. I remarked to one of our leading directors that this was a vacuous practice since you'd be hard put to find a play to which the tag was not relevant, saving perhaps The Wind in the Willows. He laughed, a trifle wanly, and no wonder, given that the line proved to be emblazoned on the bumf to his own next production.

With piquant perversity, 'They fuck you up . . .' does not appear in the programme to Sean Mathias's glorious, stunningly designed Lyttelton production of Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles, even though this is the modern play to which it would make an almost understated epigraph.

Consider the position of the 22-year-old son, Michael (Jude Law). Locked in a hothouse, all-but-incestuous relationship with his semi-invalid mother, he tries to break free, but his efforts to forge an alternative relationship with the lower- born Madeleine (who represents Order to his parents' moneyed, gypsy-like Chaos) run into the snag that the girl happens to have been having an affair with his hapless inventor father. Throw in an aunt who has always had the hots for the father and is prepared to manipulate events for her own self-interest, and you have a pretty conclusive argument for the advantages of parthenogenesis.

Graced with a superb cast, Mathias's production, which begins by pretending to be a movie, keeps its balance brilliantly, with performances that are true both to the dredged- up-by-opium dream-like quality of the piece and to its simultaneous air of being the camp, artily knowing product of a clear, highly self-conscious mind. Given that the wranglings and rum goings-on in the convalescent murk of the mother's sleazily luxurious boudoir represent Gallic rather than Anglo-Saxon attitudes, it's a tribute to Jeremy Sams' translation that the first time you're made conscious of any cultural discrepancy is when the aunt makes a Yeatsian allusion to 'the rag and bone shop of the heart'. Significantly, and appropriately, the title has been left un-Anglicised.

Marx's remark about historical events, that they occur 'the first time as tragedy, the second as farce', could certainly be applied to the way familial situations with an Attic ancestry are recycled by Cocteau in this play. For the most part, the cast realise that, before you can self-referentially camp up the overblown emotions of these characters, you have to establish that they spring from their guts. Looking like a quietly fretful tortoise, Alan Howard is very funny as the father, his posture detumescence writ large. Slopping round her bedroom in square-jawed mania, Sheila Gish's squat, frowsty mother is so wrapped up in her emotions, she at one point plonks herself down in a wardrobe and absently wipes her nose on one of her own chic gowns.

Towering comically over her is her scheming sister, who deprecates but battens off the disorder of this household and whose cagey game is tricked out with some delicious mugging in Frances de la Tour's vivid, if perhaps insufficiently dangerous performance. I loved the way she poked her head up into Madeleine's garret and declared 'It's tidy]' with the incredulous joy of a desert wanderer stumbling on the Promised Land. Moments from this production will get lodged like shrapnel in the subconscious, even if the play doesn't have you pining for a full Cocteau season.

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