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.

Booking: 071-928 2252

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935