Bourgeois Paris has never looked so terrifying than in Jean Cocteau’s tragicomedy Les Parents Terribles. One minute a farce, the next a frightening glimpse into the mentally unhinged, former Donmar Warehouse assistant director Chris Rolls has graduated to the West End and created a hilarious whirlwind of a show.
Written by Cocteau in eight opium-fuelled days, the presumably surreal nature of that drugged week translates to the stage with the creation of a selection of grotesque yet oddly endearing characters who become a pendulum of human emotions and mood swings.
Living in dishevelled elegance, described by the eccentric bunch as their ‘gypsy camp’, a family’s life is tilted even more off balance than its strange foundations already are when son Michael (Tom Byam Shaw) falls in love with a woman who turns out to be his father’s mistress. Throw in unrequited love, an Oedipus complex and various mental unbalance, and a picture of the chaos that unfolds can be imagined.
Living with bohemian ideas above their station, parents Yvonne (Frances Barber) and George (Anthony Calf) suffer from an almighty case of Peter Pan syndrome. Unable to look after normal things such as cleaning, money and parenting, Yvonne’s pragmatic sister Leo, the very picture of order and conservativeness, has devoted her life to looking after them.
But things are not as they first seem. Bourgeois in appearance only, no one in this household is an artist or poet. George, with his floppy hair and permanent confused expression, is an unsuccessful inventor pushed out of the family and marital bed with the arrival 22 years ago of their puppy-like son Michael. With Yvonne obsessed, ‘Mickybear’ and ‘Sophiebear’ – insert vomiting noise here – neck rather than peck and grope rather than hug in disturbing incestuous displays that leave Yvonne ready to die at the thought he might leave her for a wife.
It is Leo who has her finger on the true pulse of the family. At first seeming matronly and cold, her underlying bitterness and biting wit transforms her into a woman of espionage as she decides to tidy everything up once and for all, no matter what the consequences.
Barber, as the childlike, snarling, immature, violent-tempered witch that is Yvonne – or Sophie to Michael – steals the show with a performance that is as hilarious as it is unsettling. With pencilled eyebrows, thick lipstick and matted hair, Barber’s eyes become possessed by Yvonne’s craziness as she delivers a performance almost too big for the cave-like Trafalgar Studio 2.
Rolls’s forte as a director appears to be his attention to detail, with each character dressed, walking and moving precisely as their personality dictates. After delivering a production that has each member of the audience laughing at one moment, squirming the next, he surely has a bright future ahead of him.