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posted/updated: 04 Dec 2019 -
Rules For Living
Sam Holcroft
society/company: Tower Theatre Company (directory)
performance date: 03 Dec 2019
venue: Tower Theatre,Stoke Newington, London N16 7HR
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)

Photos: David Sprecher

Sam Holcroft’s dark comedy of 2015 about a dysfunctional family convening to celebrate Christmas together is now an extremely popular choice among societies in the non-professional theatre community. This week, under the experienced direction of John Chapman, Stoke Newington’s Tower Theatre Company presents Rules for Living – just weeks before we all get to live the experience for real.

The parallels with Alan Ayckbourn’s regular middle class, suburban set-up is often referred to, as is the annual opportunity to argue over an innocent board game with relatives you may not see for the rest of the year, by many a stand-up comedian. I will be surprised if Rules for Living – first commissioned by the National Theatre for a run in the Dorfman – isn’t one of the top-10 most-performed plays on the amateur circuit at the end of the current season (Sep 19 – Aug 20).

Of course popularity, however fashionable, doesn’t guarantee great writing and I feel rather inclined to say that, having now seen this play twice (to clarify exactly how these ‘Rules for Living’ are administered in Holcroft’s script and during its performance) I believe the piece to be somewhat flawed as a theatrical endeavour. It almost certainly doesn’t possess the razor-sharp wit and observations of Yasmina Reza or, more recently, Jeremy Sams’ touring adaptation of another French masterpiece, What’s in a Name?.

To quote the Internet, “Holcroft explores coping with family dynamics and social constructs that limit behaviours through cognitive therapy,” under the understanding that our thoughts, emotional feelings and behaviour are all somehow connected. Hence, halfway through the opening scene - in which Matthew has brought his insecure actress-girlfriend to the family home for the first time - it is captioned at the rear of the stage that ‘Matthew must sit to tell a lie’. Much hilarity ensues every time Matthew then sits – as we ‘know’ he’s not telling the truth. Then, how the over-enthusiastic ‘Carrie must stand to tell a joke’… etc.

This format continues as we meet married forty-somethings, Sheena and Adam (Matthew’s brother), as well as family matriarch, Edith, who traditionally tends to prepare the annual festive meal with military precision and authority (‘Edith must clean to keep calm’). Offstage are Sheena and Adam’s anxiety-filled teenage daughter and Edith’s husband, Francis – who is being brought home from hospital to join the family where he has been staying since suffering a recent stroke.

Once the ‘rules’ format is established, a second round of ‘directives’ are administered, compounding the first, followed by a third set – delivered at pace as the energy-filled climax of the play builds. The point is, as an audience, once the format is established and understood, the ‘rules’ gimmick tends to lose its impact, especially as it keeps on coming. Dare I say, certain moves can also feel a little contrived to fit any respective rule being followed. Then, when the board game, Bedlam, is opened post-interval, yet more rules are observed and referenced – mirroring the effect of the entire play into a five-minute scene… leading to a huge family slanging match.

My own secret theory of how Holcroft really came up with her idea for this play was possibly during her own Christmas family get-together and subsequently an ill-advised game of Bedlam!

It’s interesting how reviews of professional shows often look at the writing, while non-professional productions usually just tend to focus more on respective performances of an established work. Rules for living is a arguably still new enough piece to earn a bit of both and, accordingly, Tower’s production is a fine one with Hattie Hahn (Sheena), Dickon Farmar (Adam) and Rosanna Preston (Edith) probably earning top honours in what is actually a heavily ensemble play.

Tower’s new North London home is a gorgeous building and the octagonal auditorium offers sublime views from every intimate angle. As such, Rob Hebblethwaite’s design, which needs to feature kitchen, living and dining areas, works very well indeed.

Chapman has done a fine job in pulling every staging requirement together including the show’s technical demands (namely the digital Rules Board), but my heart does also go out to the three-person stage crew who are left with a nightly mess of sweets, turkey and spilled booze to clear up and re-set. Without giving away any too many spoilers, the play’s climax sees a picture postcard of domestic bliss descend into not much more than a good old-fashioned food-fight!

Rules for Living plays at Tower Theatre until Saturday, 7th December 2019.
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