Review: Rules for Living
Image courtesy Tower Theatre
Matthew: Adam Hampton-Matthews
Carrie: Kasia Chodurek
Sheena: Hattie Hahn
Adam: Dickon Farmar
Edith: Rosanna Preston
Francis: Tom Tillery
Emma: Helena Braithwaite
Nobody's perfect ... and, after all, it is Christmas!
(to the tune of The Holly and the Ivy)
Poor Carrie's feeling nervous
And Adam won't commit
Matthew's got a little secret
And Sheena won't submit
Oh, Mum's been planning Xmas
Since early January
How are they going to cope with life?
Thank God for therapy!
What happens when an extended family gathers in the kitchen for a traditional Christmas?
As long-held mechanisms for survival are laid bare, even Mum, who's been preparing this lunch since last January, becomes embroiled.
Long-held rivalries and resentments will out.
Accusations fly, relationships deconstruct.
Rules For Living is a seasonal family tale of disharmony, ruined expectations, overindulgence, a manic board game called "Bedlam!" and some of life's little coping mechanisms.
Let the festivities commence!
At Christmas "family is the most important thing" - so we learn from Tower Theatre's latest show: Sam Holcroft's Rules for Living, which premiered at the National Theatre just a few years back in 2015.
This production is aptly timed as we enter the festive season since the play is set on Christmas Day itself - the focal point of all our current, laborious (possibly tedious) preparations.
And though we have over 3 weeks yet of unbridled spending before gorging day, Rules for Living certainly has the essence to get us in the festive mood ... well, maybe!
The family we find slotted under the dramatic microscope here certainly appear to subscribe to the adage that family is king at yuletide, but they nevertheless come to regret that viewpoint.
A happy family sharing a harmonious, fun-filled Christmas this isn't!
Like the aromas that permeate the kitchen in this behavioural dark comedy, there's a background whiff of Alan Ayckbourn's 1980 play, Season's Greetings, which also studies a dysfunctional family, but over a period of several days starting on Christmas Eve.
Rules for Living, however, is focused on the big day itself, reinforcing the precarious nature of the obligatory family ritual many of us endure and which often harbours the potential for catastrophe as old rivalries, grudges and acrimony squirm under the surface jollity.
The title might not sound particularly Chistmassy, but then it's not really meant to because the writer's interest is found in the behaviour of individuals as seen through the lens of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
There's insufficient space and time here to undertake a detailed explanation of what that is (you can read more about it here) save to say that the writer's concept is based on her experience of the therapy and is defined within the play by the psychological 'rules' individuals impose on themselves and their behaviour.
To highlight these, we find character rules appearing on a screen as events on stage unfold.
Cast of Rules for Living - photo by David Sprecher
Rules for Living, however, is not only about self-imposed, unwritten rules but also highlights those levied on us by society or our family - for example the ones the matriarch in the play reels off just prior to Christmas lunch or the complex rules of the Christmas game the family play.
The substantial acting area in Tower Theatre's auditorium is cordoned off from the audience for this show with a barricade decorated with images of streets in the locality of Stoke Newington (where this version is set).
It's only as we get into the second half that the need for the construction becomes apparent as events in the household plummet to the depths of chaos.
Even if Sam Holcroft's conceptual approach feels a touch forced - with rules being spelt out for us along the way - the writer has perfect intuitive timing in terms of the overall progression of the piece.
The first half of the play is somewhat slow-burning both in terms of plot development and comedic moments.
But, as all good festal cooks know, what starts comfortably simmering can quickly gain temperature when the heat is too high.
So it's Dickon Farmar's brilliantly described Adam who reaches the explosive boiling point, instigating a complete breakdown of family niceties .. and those dreaded rules.
That requires director John Chapman to utilise all his consummate efficiency in meticulously planning the play's crescendo, where it's impossible to decide where to look as mayhem, quite literally, explodes in hilarious fashion.
The denouement also requires spot-on timing from the strong ensemble, who all turn-in distinctive and considered performances that prove entirely engaging and believable in a well-honed production.
Hugely enjoyable and comedically fun though it is, Rules for Living also touches on sensitive, sometimes painful issues that lends a more sombre tone to Sam Holcroft's cleverly-written work.
Let's just hope that Christmas for the rest of us this year is rather more pain and rule free!
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Tower Theatre
Our show listing for Rules for Living
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