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Rules for Living

by on 9 November 2017

Play the Game

Rules for Living

by Sam Holcroft

RTK, English Touring Theatre and Royal and Derngate Northampton co-production 
The Rose Theatre Kingston, until 18th November

Review by Melissa Syversen

On the surface Rules for Living, currently playing at the Rose Theatre Kingston, seems like your average farce. It follows a standard farce story line we have all seen time and time again: It is Christmas day and we are introduced to your seemingly normal middle-class British family as they gather for their annual Christmas lunch. The younger brother Matthew (Jolyon Coy) has brought his actress girlfriend Carrie (Carlyss Peer) to join the festivities for the first time. Older brother Adam (Ed Hughes) and his wife Nicole (Laura Rogers), a childhood friend of the two brothers, have brought their daughter Emma (doubled by Charlotte Coppellotti and Bonnie Kingston) who we learn is resting upstairs. The matriarch of the house Edith (Jane Booker), famous for her tight schedules and rigorous Christmas preparations, puts everyone to work to create the perfect lunch for Francis, the father of the family (Paul Shelley), who is returning from the hospital to join the family. We then follow this family as a seemingly pleasant Christmas tradition descends into chaotic revelations of secrets, hostilities and bitter grudges.

Rules For Living at ETT and Royal and Derngate Production. Photo by Mark Douet _31B7976 copy

Rules for Living, however, despite its initial impression, is not your average farce. Playwright Sam Holcroft has created a format wherein the characters exist that sets this play apart from other similar ventures. By adopting a literal take on her title, she gives five of the seven characters specific rules they must live by. About ten minutes into the play, a big red sign is projected onto the set where everyone, including the character it applies to, can see. The first rule we see is this. Rule 1: Matthew must sit down when telling a lie. What follows thanks to this premise can only be described as top notch physical and non-verbal comedy, adding a nice layer to the already well written and witty script. As the play goes on each character is given their rules and, as the Christmas lunch continues, each rule is further expanded, growing increasingly demanding and ridiculous. I don’t want to give away anymore of the rules here, however, as the revelations and the timing of the rules are often as funny as the enactments themselves. And bless this cast, they really go for it. The audience is treated to some genuinely impressive contortions such as a desperate Matthew trying to get his bum on a seat so he can lie and get himself out of the figurative hot seat. As wonderful as all the rule-bound family members are, I must especially mention Paul Shelley’s Francis. Francis might be bound to a wheelchair instead of abstract rules but he is no less funny. The timing of his single words, grunts and facial expression are just as funny and well-timed as Carlyss Peers’ Carrie’s desperately compulsive dancing across the stage.

Rules For Living at ETT and Royal and Derngate Production. Photo by Mark Douet _31B8058 copy

Rules for Living once again allows director Simon Goodwin to show off just how good he is at directing ensemble comedy. If you happened to see Twelfth Night at the National Theatre this year, you can expect just as many laughs and attention to details in Rules for Living. It might sound like it will be difficult to keep track of all the rules throughout the show, and in less sturdy hands, I am sure it would have been. However, the creative team has devised a clever and efficient way to help the audience keep track. As each rule is projected on to the set, each sign is also colour-coded to the character it belongs to. Nicole is wearing a purple dress for instance; therefore, her rule sign is purple. In the second act, there is an added, I’ll call it a ‘traffic light system’, that signalises which rules are ‘active’ at any time. The family’s compulsive following of arbitrary rules continues to expand and escalate through a very tense round of a card game called Bedlam (It is a tradition for one member each year to bring a game for the family to play) and through an even worse lunch. Eventually, as it usually is with these comedy family dramas, the chord finally snaps and the family break into a combined fist and food fight cleverly choreographed by fight director Kevin McCurdy (who has also fight choreographed As You Like It, running concurrently at Richmond Theatre).

Rules For Living at ETT and Royal and Derngate Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _31B0004 copy

In the end, Rules for Living offers a lovely bit of poignancy and commentary about the rules we often inflict upon ourselves in life and the relations we have with others. These rules often start out harmless but can reach intolerable and unhealthy levels if left unchecked. Rules for Living further illustrates that we do have the power to break these rules, though the process of change can be a painful and difficult journey. But even if change and growth are possible, it is also something many do not have the strength or even desire to go through, preferring to stay with what feels safe and familiar. It is a bittersweet ending which I think will ring true with many.

Rules For Living at ETT and Royal and Derngate Production. Photo by Mark Douet _31B8937 copy

What could have been a somewhat lacklustre, ‘by-the-numbers’ farce, Rules for Living is lifted into an enjoyable comedy thanks to the clever concept and writing by Sam Holcroft, clever staging by director Simon Goodwin and the creative team, and acted by a cast clearly having a blast.

Melissa Syversen
November 2017

Photographs by Mark Douet


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