Theatre review – Rules For Living at the National Theatre (Dorfman stage)

BzQ7d8yIIAANmVc I recently made my second trip to the newly refurbished Dorfman Theatre (I think it’ll always be the Cottesloe to me) to see this new play by Sam Holcroft and what a treat it is. If you are in need of a good laugh at the moment, Rules For Living will certainly do the trick.

Set on Christmas Day (it did feel a bit odd having this run in Spring!), we find ourselves in the family home of one rather eccentric family, gathering together for the traditional Christmas lunch. Whether anyone will survive is another matter! Brothers Matt (Miles Jupp) and Adam (Stephen Mangan) have arrived with their new girlfriend and wife respectively, while their mother (Deborah Findlay), is planning lunch with military precision, in anticipation of the return from hospital of their father. However the play is unusual in its style, in that it explores our cognitive behaviour and how each of us is living by our own set of rules, which may not always mesh with those of the people around us.

Photo: Simon Annand

This is brilliantly conveyed in gameshow style staging, with two large, colourful scoreboards at either end of the promenade stage, there purely for the audience’s insight in to the minds of the characters. As more are introduced, we learn their “rules”, such as Matt sitting down every time he tells a lie and their mother cleaning whenever she is stressed. As more people arrive on the scene, the more rules are in play, leading to some hilarious moments. As the play continues and the relationships over Christmas Day become more and more strained, the rules expand, so now Matt must eat and sit down when lying. As an audience member, you can’t help but laugh at the embarrassing and awkwardly comic moments unfolding in front of you (the scene in which the family attempt to play a card game was one of my favourites)!

Setting the play on Christmas Day makes wonderful sense, as it is a day during which most families experience some form of stressful interaction, often being thrown together on a day when we are all expected to be overly happy! There are aspects of all the characters here that will be familiar to you, although hopefully not all of them in one family gathering! The staging is ideal for the play, with the audience on ground level sitting either side of the promenade stage, lending the theatre a voyeuristic, Big-Brother style feel (especially with the audience on the upper levels surrounding all four sides of the theatre space). The colourful scoreboard and glitzy gameshow noises that accompany it add to the fun, as we watch each character effectively competing to score the most points, through fulfilling their rules, whether they realise it or not and the more the rules expand, the more ridiculous events become.

Maggie Service as Carrie. Photo: Simon Annand

It is also a wonderful cast, who work together brilliantly and seem to be having lots of fun bringing their characters and the play as a whole to life. Deborah Findlay is wonderful as the family matriarch, desperately clinging to order among the chaos. Maggie Service is a delight as Matt’s girlfriend Carrie. She isn’t part of the family and in a way feels like a spectator, much the same as the audience, but her bubbly personality adds a sparkle to the production. Stephen Mangan seems in his element as Adam, the frustrated son, never good enough and increasingly suspicious of his brother’s feelings for his wife. He is wonderfully sarcastic and you find yourself liking him, while also being frustrated by his stubbornness. Claudie Blakley, who plays his estranged wife Sheena also has some fantastic moments with both brothers.

The dialogue is wonderfully witty and full of humour, but also includes some very real moments of emotion, whether a couple trying to deal with their crumbling marriage or the bitter rivalry of siblings, all of which makes the play, despite the craziness, feel believable. Watching the tensions bubble can be both funny and uncomfortable and the truly bonkers and entertaining scene when all hell breaks loose feels inevitable. I thoroughly enjoyed this production, having not known what to expect and I haven’t laughed that much in ages. If you need something to pick up your mood and you can nab a ticket (it’s almost sold out) don’t hesitate.

Rules For Living continues its run in rep at the National’s Dorfman Theatre until 8th July 2015. For more information and ticket availability, visit the website here.


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