Rules for Living – National Theatre

Christmas (or indeed Easter) with the family is always something that raises as many concerns as smiles, so no wonder it is well-trodden ground for comedy writers. When there are no young children around to hide behind, a group of adults trapped in a house together for days on end inevitably leads to frayed tempers, nervy exchanges and plenty of tension. Used to behaving however you want, returning to the parental home brings out the sulky teenager in a lot of people, and, far from the cosy American family festivities, by the time Boxing Day arrives everyone’s thankful that it’s 364 days until we have to do this all again.

Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft taps into this rich seam of comedic situations, presenting one Christmas at a family home, where adult children Matthew and Adam have returned home with their partners for the day, and their invalid father has been allowed to visit from his nursing home. The conceit here is that each protagonist is given a rule, shown on a scoreboard at each end of the stage, giving the audience some insight into their behaviour which is unknown to the other characters. For example, Matthew must always sit down to tell a lie, let’s the viewer know that anything he says while sitting down is untrue. And the root of much of the comedy comes from this additional knowledge.

It is an interesting concept which works well at times but, in what is a surprisingly long play, eventually becomes a little tiresome. I liked the notion that family politics is like a game, with individuals scoring points off one another, usually to make themselves look better, and the concept is realised here as well as it probably could be, but it does become a little repetitive towards the end. There’s also an announcer at the beginning and in the interval announcing the beginning and resumption of ‘play’.

Chloe Lamford’s design is excellent and the play takes place in a kitchen / living room surrounded on four sides by the audience, exactly like a tennis court. As well as the usual furniture there are basketball court markings on the floor and 2 large scoreboards on either end so the audience can keep track of each character’s rules and how they change, all building up to a final point-scoring section. It uses the new and flexible Dorfman space well – which is very modern and has a more Young Vic feel – so the view appears to be good from most seats.

The play itself does have some genuinely hilarious moments and a great cast of accomplished comedians and comic actors who relish their roles. Miles Jupp and Stephen Mangan lead the way as warring brothers Matthew and Adam, belittling each other to make their own choices seem better which gets increasingly out of control. Deborah Findley is initially an intimidating and controlling presence as their mother Edith but she too succumbs to hysteria as events unfold. Claudia Blakely is also excellent as Adam’s secretly estranged and neurotic wife Sheena, while Maggie Service plays the obligatory outsider as the bouncy Carrie, Matthew’s actress girlfriend unused to the rules of a strange family Christmas.

It’s a fun evening, but does feel like you’ve seen it all before and other than the design and nominal structure, there’s nothing particular new here or hasn’t already been satirised by Alan Ayckbourne. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, there is a welcome cosiness and familiarity to the type of humour and it is an interesting and well told story with plenty of laughs, but it’s not perhaps as radical as it likes to think. It’s a tad over-complicated with so many backstories to keep track of and I’m not sure we need to see the father or Adam’s daughter, having them as off-stage influences would have been much stronger. Still there is a food fight, so can’t complain.

It’s been a while since the National Theatre and I were friends; a series of underwhelming productions in the last 18 months, overpriced tickets and a tendency to sell even their cheap Travelex seats to Members who can afford to pay more than £15, has narrowed their audience demographic. I liked King Lear although the central performance was somewhat feeble; Medea was great, as was the revival of A Taste of Honey, but The Silver Tassie is just an awful play while their production of A Small Family Business was disappointing, so having to pay at least £40 for substandard shows was becoming a joke.  Nothing in the most recent winter programme  appealed and there has been a tendency to be a little too reverential to established playwrights whose more recent work has certainly needed some editing. And even the remotest implication that audiences are too stupid for a certain play isn’t exactly a winning marketing strategy.

But with a new Director in place, the NT may be turning a corner or at least manoeuvring into a corner-turning position. Perhaps it’s too early to get the flags out but there is a new version of Carol Churchill’s A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire to come and Ralph Fiennes is already well into his run of Man and Superman which will be reviewed here shortly. The NT and I are not quite friends yet but we’re in the same room again and there are appreciative nods and smiles. The signs look good and this production of Rules for Living feels like its heralding a fresh start of interesting new writing and innovative revivals. Well, here’s hoping anyway!

Rules for Living is at the National Theatre until 8th July. Tickets are £15-40 with concessions available for under 18s. Follow this blog on Twitter – @cutluralcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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