Andrew D Edwards’ decadently appointed set for Les Parents Terribles creates a sense of claustrophobia and intrusion that speaks directly to the heart of Cocteau’s assault on family values. With mirrors across the entire back wall and the ceiling, the effect in the already cramped space of Trafalgar Studio Two, is deeply unsettling and somehow erotic. Slovenly draped furnishings and Richard Howell’s sensuous lighting contribute further to the highly charged atmosphere.
Director Chris Rolls gives us assured and fearless direction, bringing the actors as far in to the audience as he dares, without breaking the convention of the space. While Cocteau’s characters flail and swoon and crawl across the tiled floor in a tumult of emotion, Rolls keeps a generally tight rein on proceedings.
Sylvestra Le Touzel glitters dangerously and seductively like barbed wire in the moonlight
The cast assembled is excellent; Frances Barber turns in a magnificent performance as Yvonne, the mother, screeching and squalling with unpredictable speed, while Sylvestra Le Touzel, as her sister Leo, glitters dangerously and seductively like barbed wire in the moonlight.
Elaine Cassidy is heartbreaking as Madeline, the soon to be daughter-in-law; indeed the enclosed space seems made for her controlled and delicately emotional performance which carries more weight that the hysterical emoting that surrounds her. Anthony Calf as George, the father, perfectly balances an outrageously florid display in the dark ‘gypsy encampment’ of his home against a more rigid and tightly wound performance in Madeline’s elegant and bright apartment.
Tom Byam Shaw looks gorgeous in the central role of Michael, the son, but struggles to convey real emotion and make the script really come to life for his character. The Oedipal nature of his relationship with Yvonne therefore seems too staged to be truly unsettling.
The theatrically cartoonish relationships between the dysfunctional family are artfully choreographed for maximum comic effect, but Rolls delicately develops the subtleties beneath Barber’s camp excess and Le Touzel’s rigid performance which seems to hint at the underlying tragedy of the situation. There is perhaps too much comedy which ultimately destabilises the tragedy. Jeremy Sam’s exquisite translation affords the cast many quotable gems, but despite the darkness suggested by the situation and the set, there is a gloss here which denies the play the chance to be truly Terrible.
**** (4 stars)
Runs until 18th December