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The Theatreguide.London Review

Rules For Living
Dorfman Theatre  Spring-Summer 2015

Sam Holcroft has written a new Alan Ayckbourn play, a little bleaker than some of Ayckbourn's, but well within the master's darkness-under-middle-class-ordinariness territory.

It's pretty good as faux-Ayckbourn plays go, until it begins to fall apart near the end, and offers a satisfying mix of comedy, drama and gimmicks. 

We're at the family-Christmas-from-Hell, someplace Ayckbourn himself has visited before, where we quickly discover that every member of the family has some crippling neurosis and their interactions are toxic. 

Mother is compulsively controlling, barking out orders on a military timetable and reacting to any setback or unpleasantness by scrubbing away at imagined dirt. Elder son is one of life's losers, doomed to mediocrity by a fear of doing anything to try to change his fate, while his wife reacts by being a control freak with a bit too much reliance on her wine. 

More successful younger brother is the peacemaker neurotically incapable of handling confrontations while pining away in love for his sister-in-law and neglecting his nervous and manic girlfriend. 

Father has had a stroke that crippled both his communication and his inhibitions, while a teenage granddaughter/daughter/niece is up in her room finding her own personal brand of madness. 

As these various quirks and cripplings interact, at first comically and then more disturbingly, playwright Holcroft adds an extra layer of both humour and psychological exposure. With games-playing one of the central metaphors of the play, the whole is made part of some cosmic-directed game whose rules keep changing. 

Illuminated rules boards dominate the stage and at intervals announce directions for one or another character's behaviour. From this point on Matthew must sit to tell a lie, we read, or Sheena must drink to contradict. 

And we watch, both amused and disturbed, while the characters, as if reacting to post-hypnotic suggestion, find natural-looking ways of following orders.

And the rules keep getting more complex. After a certain point Matthew must sit and eat whenever he lies, or other characters must continue their required behaviour until some other event happens. 

And as we laugh at Matthew frantically stuffing his face, or mother running out of surfaces to polish whenever she is nervous, or the girlfriend unable to stop hopping about, we are also chilled by the realisation that these are all rather common nervous tics run amok. 

Holcroft's play is weakened a bit by the fact that almost everything he has to say is clear fairly early, so that to hold interest he has to keep raising the farcical and dramatic stakes without much in the way of additional payoff. 

There's a whiff in the play itself of the same kind of increasing hysteria that drives the characters, and the climactic explosion has an air of 'How do I end this play?' desperation about it.

Still, there's a lot of fun and psychological insight and theatrical inventiveness to Rules For Living, and opportunities for the actors, under Marianne Elliott's sharp direction, to demonstrate the tightly-controlled running amok of farce playing. 

Miles Jupp as the lovesick chair-hunting peacekeeper, Stephen Mangan as the brother driven to sneer at others rather than take any action himself, and Deborah Findlay as the mother in ever more frantic search for specks of dirt carry the bulk of the comedy ably. 

Claudie Blakely as the someone-has-to-make-decisions wife, Maggie Service as the nervous girlfriend and, in briefer appearances, John Rogan as father and Daisy Waterstone as the teenager possibly the sanest among them are all given less to do but do it well.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Rules For Living - National Theatre 2014 

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