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Review Round-up: Barber & Calf Play as Parents

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The final instalment of the Donmar’s inaugural director showcase season at Trafalgar Studios 2 opened to critics this week (29 November 2010, previews from 25 November) - Chris Rolls’ revival of Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles, translated by Jeremy Sams.

Starring Frances Barber, Tom Byam Shaw, Anthony Calf, Elaine Cassidy and Sylvestra Le Touzel, the play is set in a bohemian household in 1930s Paris. When Michael (Byam Shaw) declares his love for a girl (Cassidy), his devoted mother (Barber) burns with jealousy while his father (Calf) is shocked to discover that his son's lover is someone he is familiar with.

Les Parents Terribles continues until 18 December. Here is a selection of overnight critical opinion...

Simon Edge

- "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 … 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 … Cocteau’s wonderfully observed tragic-farce may not shock the way it first did in 1938, but in Jeremy Sams’ translation it still sparkles.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“All good festivals end with fireworks, and the Donmar’s first showcase season for young directors certainly does, with the last of them, Chris Rolls, lighting the blue touchpaper … Barber as Yvonne - ‘Sophie-bear’ to the grown-up son she can’t let go - is the wild heart of Jean Cocteau’s 1938 play. A semi-invalid with middle-class bohemian pretensions, she sees her family as “gypsies” and hurls shawls around her in a textile tempest … To generate sufficient shock Jeremy Sams’ lively translation has to be played with brio, humour and melodramatic conviction. And so it is … The intimacy of the little studio has you staring right into the crazy black eyes of Barber and the chilling gaze of Le Touzel: that close, even Cocteau’s daring flip of sympathy in the last moments almost works. Dangerous fun.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“Presented here in the fine translation by Jeremy Sams that was used for Sean Mathias’ National Theatre production in 1994, this deftly constructed play occasionally looks like a tragedy but is closer to farce … Although the performances glitter with camp excess, they’re deeply unsettling. Frances Barber’s Yvonne is especially flamboyant, but her demonstrative behaviour is tinged with pathos. The excellent Sylvestra Le Touzel’s Leo is a study in repressed sexuality, while Anthony Calf’s George is puppyish yet also devious, and Tom Byam Shaw makes a keen impression as tormented, ecstatic Michael … It’s an assured interpretation. Skewering the effortful bohemianism of Cocteau’s characters, and conveying both their humanity and their absurdity, it suggests that Rolls is a young director to watch.”

Michael Billington

"The Donmar's West End season is driven by the desire to promote young directors, and it has an excellent one in Chris Rolls. He has grasped the key point that this 1938 play by Jean Cocteau is, in Jeremy Sams' witty translation, more Oedipal farce than high tragedy … What makes the play funny is the contrast between Leo's precision and the rest of the family's strenuous bohemianism: something perfectly brought out in Rolls' production. Sylvestra Le Touzel's superb Leo has the starched sexiness of a very good district nurse with a taste for Machiavellian politics. She is also an ideal foil to Frances BarberAnthony Calf as the floppy-haired, ineffectual father and Tom Byam Shaw as the troubled, mother-dominated son add to the air of frenzy … Cocteau's play is not without its own self-consciousness but, written in eight, opium-filled days, it works on an audience like a mad dream.”

Sarah Hemming
Financial Times

"Cocteau’s 1938 drama, with its claustrophobic atmosphere and ingrown characters, is admirably suited to the confines of Trafalgar Studio 2, and Chris Rolls’s fine production makes the most of this. Andrew D Edward’s set is wonderfully louche: it plasters the walls and ceilings with dark mirrors, creating the oppressive interior of the family apartment and reflecting the narcissism on display … Rolls pitches his staging beautifully, playing up the barbed comedy without losing the bitterness and unsettling intensity … Barber throws herself into the part with impressive abandon, collapsing in heaps all over the set, writhing wildly on her chaise longue, erupting into wheezing outbursts of grief or rage. She’s camp, capricious and manipulative, but she can also be distressingly pathetic, as well as genuinely scary when she lets rip … A picture of a wilfully immature generation emerges in which everybody is looking after number one. And the performance of the evening comes from Sylvestra Le Touzel as Yvonne’s starchily sensible sister.”

Dominic Cavendish
Daily Telegraph

“Jean Cocteau’s razor-sharp, still risqué anatomy of family dysfunction (1938) fully lives up to its title in this lethally amusing revival by Chris Rolls … Part farce-tragedy hybrid, part over-plotted satire on bourgeois propriety and the mess it conceals, the piece demands astute playing, and in this production we duly get a clutch of finely judged performances, dominated by a masterclass from Frances Barber in matriarchal excess … Barber, bare-foot and wild-haired, answers the part’s comic exaggeration. With her banshee screeches and rasping howls, at times she’s like an unhinged cross between Medusa and the Wicked Witch of the West … There’s not enough room to do full justice to Anthony Calf’s George, by turns vacant-aired and over-concerned, or to the droll, wintry-eyed disdain of Sylvestra Le Touzel as his attendant and long-adoring, spinster sister-in-law Leo.”


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