Rules for Living
Rose Theatre Kingston
Reviewed – 8th November 2017
“The deranged characters become unhinged by their own rules and the Christmas celebration descends into anarchy”
“Rules For Living” by Sam Holcroft gets its second outing after a 2015 run at the National Theatre. Directed by Simon Godwin, this is a co-production by the Rose Theatre Kingston, the English Touring Theatre and the Royal and Derngate in Northampton.
It’s Christmas Day and the family gathers round to celebrate with the patriarch, whom we learn is just coming home from the hospital. Amid all the Christmas decorations and fake bonhomie, all is not well. There is the obnoxiously blabber-mouthed girlfriend Carrie (Carlyss Peer); the bossy matriarch, Edith (Jane Booker) who must tidy the house to remain calm; the long awaited father (Paul Shelley) who is incapacitated, but not enough so that he doesn’t have an eye, and indeed a pinch, for a pretty girl. Joining them are the failed cricketer husband and son (Ed Hughes), who is at odds with the favoured lawyer son Matthew (an excellently understated Jolyon Coy) and Nicole (Laura Rogers), the daughter-in-law who gradually gets drunker as the evening progresses. In addition there is a grand daughter who is unable to come downstairs due to unspecified mental health issues. This is the cue for cognitive behavioural therapy to be introduced.
The premise is that everyone has rules for living life that come from childhood. Holcroft uses these rules to flag up each character’s foibles to the audience. This is a funny, almost Brechtian device that projects onto screens above the action to explain quirks such as Matt must sit to tell a lie or Carrie must stand and dance to tell a joke. At times the play shifts into absurdity as it piles on more outlandish layers to these rules.
There are plenty of laughs at closely observed middle class family life. There are shades of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever”, and that “poet of formica and despair”, Alan Ayckbourn. There are private conversations; arguments about the virtues of rice milk versus goats milk; Mum despairing over her children’s clothing choices; sibling rivalry; pretending to talk about something else when others came into the room; pretending to enjoy the food a character cooks; a forgotten Christmas present. The play touches on deeper themes of being honest, people not listening to each other, and facing a parent’s mortality. The catalyst for the evening’s final descent into chaos is a card game aptly named Bedlam. The deranged characters become unhinged by their own rules and the Christmas celebration descends into anarchy, culminating in a chaotic food fight.
The wonderfully designed, tiny, colourful set breaks in half as the action spills out onto the thrust stage. Designed by Lily Arnold it is augmented by the video designs of Andrzej Goulding. Mark Melville has composed the wonderful score featuring glockenspiel Christmas music, pastoral tunes (complete with tweeting birds) and the video game sounds that punctuate the rules captions.
My main criticism is that the structure became too much when the third layer of rules were imposed. The rules feel arbitrary and the play collapses in on itself. There is also a rather unbelievable love triangle. The play left me cold, as I didn’t ultimately care about the characters. They appear to be automatons with impulses, except the poor granddaughter upstairs who is lucky enough to escape the madcap festivities.
At the end, Edith says, “We’ll look back on this and laugh”, and for the main part, the audience did.
Reviewed by Hellena Taylor
Photography by Mark Douet
RULES FOR LIVING
is at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 18th November