Sam Holcroft’s new play posits that everyone has coping strategies or ‘rules’ by which they live their life. In Rules for Living, we watch a family try to get through what becomes a more and more tense Christmas lunch, all the while abiding strictly by their own rules for living: for example, “Matthew must sit and eat to tell a lie”, and “Edith must clean and self-medicate to keep calm”. These rules become all the more intriguing after Sheena reveals that her daughter Emma is suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, which she believes is brought on by Emma’s rule for herself that she must be the best at everything, which has pushed her to exhaustion. As the rules for the rest of the characters become more and more necessary, they also become more harmful until it seems that it will not be long before the rest of the characters are pushed to their limits by their strict rules for life – just as Emma has been.
The set-up of the family Christmas dinner descending into arguments, as years of bottled-up family resentment are brought to the fore, is not a new one and it does feel a little clichéd at times, but the fast-paced, relatable and extremely funny script helps to keep this old format feeling fresh. Large scoreboards situated on each side of the stage that show the characters’ rules for living also add a unique aspect – watching the play becomes as much of a game as the play is itself, as the audience try to keep tabs on the characters and how well they are sticking to their rules.
The play is showing at the National Theatre’s newly renovated Dorfman Theatre, which is a small but versatile space mostly utilised extremely well in this production. The small stage area is fully surrounded by three tiers of seating, so that it feels almost like a stadium (a nice complement to the scoreboards and the game theme) and also creates a claustrophobic atmosphere for the set, which mirrors the tense mood of the family gathering. Unfortunately, much of the tiered seating has a restricted view that cuts off a fair amount of the stage area; this is not dealt with very well as the cast are often huddled onto one side of the stage that could not be seen from many areas.
Rules for Living is essentially a modern day farce: slightly predictable but extremely funny with cleverly executed physical and verbal comedy in equal measure. A full-on food fight has the audience in fits of laughter (even when it gets so intense that some people in the front rows have to duck for cover), and the wonderful cast (who include comedian Miles Jupp and renowned comic actor Stephen Mangan) make every joke land and keep the pace necessarily fast and furious.
Rules For Living is playing at the National Theatre until 8 July. For tickets and more information, see the National Theatre website.