The last London production of Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles featured an unknown actor called Jude Law climbing naked up the back wall of the Lyttelton Theatre.
Director Chris Rolls’ revival – the third and final production in the Donmar Warehouse’s season at Trafalgar Studios 2 – cannot compete on that score, and it sometimes has to shout to be heard over End of the Rainbow, its noisy neighbour in the main house.
But it does offer Frances Barber as the over-protective Yvonne, a decadent middle-class slob who has fits of jealous – if not incestuous – hysteria when her grown-up son gets a girlfriend. No one does over-the-top grotesques quite like Barber: spitting hoarse venom, she is in her element in a role that might have been written for her.
Equally, no one does acerbic deadpan quite like Sylvestra Le Touzel, a disgracefully under-appreciated actress, as Yvonne’s repressed, calculating sister Léonie. Together they are mesmerising as the rival forces of order and disorder, the one elegant and brisk, the other howling in a self-indulgent agony that weaves teasingly back and forth between comedy and tragedy.
Tom Byam Shaw is an energetic faun as Yvonne’s son love-struck Michael, lapping up his mother’s adoration with narcissistic greed. Strong support also comes from Elaine Cassidy as Michael’s girlfriend Madeleine and Anthony Calf as his weak-willed father, who turns chillingly nasty when it emerges he has been carrying on with the same girl.
Designed by Andrew D Edwards, the production is lavishly dressed for such a tiny space, and it fizzes along under Rolls’ pacy direction. Cocteau’s wonderfully observed tragic-farce may not shock the way it first did in 1938, but in Jeremy Sams’ translation it still sparkles.