Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft – New Wolsey Theatre until Sat 4th November
First shown at the National Theatre in 2015, Rules for Living has been revived for a tour of the provinces by English Touring Theatre under the direction of Simon Godwin. Its billed as a cross between an Alan Ayckbourn and a look at Cognative Behavioural Therapy. But this play by relative newcomer Sam Holcroft is a strange beast. It starts off very firmly in Ayckbourn territory yet descends into something far more manic – and along the way somewhat loses its direction.
The play is set in the middle class home of Edith and Francis on Christmas day, and the set is a very detailed rendition of their living room/kitchen. Francis has been in hospital and the family is waiting on his return. Edith has invited her sons and their partners to what she hopes will be a perfect family Christmas – so we all know it’s going to be a disaster. The characters are fairly stock for this type of play. The sons don’t get on – one has a marriage thats breaking up – the other has a girlfriend who wants him ‘to put a ring on it’. The daughter in law is a bit of a shrew – the girlfriend ditsy – the mother is very house proud and wants everybody to get on etc etc.
So far there nothing new here – but playwright Holcroft then decides to give the characters rules – a bit like playing a game – whereby they have to direct or alter their conversation, and these appear in graphic form above the stage. So for instance Matthew has to sit down to tell a lie, Edith self medicates and cleans whenever she gets stressed, elder son Adam has to mock with a silly accent and so on. This is mildly amusing to begin with but gets more tiresome as the evening progresses – and makes the action seem extremely contrived.
Once Francis arrives in a wheelchair for the opening of the second half – the only one who seemingly does not have to play by a set of rules – I was beginning to wonder where it could all go – especially as he has a had a stroke and/or a touch of dementia which means his speech is garbled but his actions very uninhibited.
From there the play basically descends into anarchy – with much trashing of the house – before the final (and I felt unnecessary) denouncements.
The actors did quite well keeping it together with the demands of pace placed on them. Jane Booker stood out as Edith – a strong performance that was at least believable. And Carlyss Peer gave it her all as Carrie. But Jolyon Coys ( Matthew) and Ed Hughes (Adam) were both trying far too hard from the beginning – and Laura Rodgers had little to do as Nichole other than be a shrewish drunk.
The audience seemed to really enjoy it – so perhaps it as just me – but I found it wearisome and slightly disturbing in equal measure.
If Ayckbourn’s your thing – but you’d like it with more bad language and bad behaviour then this is for you. But for me its all been done before – and so much better -by a myriad of other writers.