Sam Holcroft’s hilarious take on social conventions and Christmas dinner plays at The Playhouse Theatre until 15 December 2018
Rules For Living made it’s debut at the National Theatre just three years ago, making it one of the most contemporary pieces recently performed on the Playhouse stage. It combines a heady mix of farce-like comedy with lessons from psychotherapy to create the perfect storm of family dysfunction, all around the Christmas table.
Matthew (Kevin Evans) and his actress girlfriend Carrie (Rebecca Mackenzie) have arrived at his parents house for a traditional Christmas Lunch with his brother, Adam (Stewart Magrath), his wife Sheena (Juliet O’Connor) and their daughter Emma, (played for this performance by Jenny Welsh). However, as with all family gatherings, things are not quite that simple. Matriarch Edith (Gena McCrystal) has the timings for the day down to an exact science, all counting down to her husband Francis (Victor Guse) returning from hospital, Adam and Sheena are in the middle of a domestic, Emma is ill in bed, and Matthew and Carrie seem to be pulling in opposite directions. And on top of all this potential for an explosive lunch, Holcroft plies her characters with arbitrary rules – for example, Matthew must sit to lie and Carrie must stand to tell a joke – and these are displayed on a screen either side of the stage for the audience to read.
The rules, as is explained in relation to Emma’s illness, are like those explored in the treatment of anxiety and depression via CBT – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. We each create our own arbitrary rules for living – whether that’s if we lose weight we’ll be more attractive, or if we have a spotless house we’ll be better party hosts and so on. These rules are benign until they become problematic – if we’re more attractive because we lost some weight, then if we lose more we’ll be more attractive still (anorexia), if I clean everything, then I’ll be better at everything (OCD). Rules for Living explores how these rules become controlling factors in our existence, and how they impact our relationships not only with each other, but with ourselves.
The concept of the rules, and the exposition to make them make sense, all meant the first half of Act 1 took a little while to find its stride, but by the beginning of Act 2, the audience were firmly on board and laughing their heads off at this futile family occasion.
Rules for Living is an adventurous production for amateur theatre – the demands on each character to maintain their own personal rules are huge and essential to the show making sense. Thankfully, The Playhouse have gathered a strong cast here, all of whom take on the challenge with gusto. O’Connor and Magrath have a wonderful chemistry as the married couple on the brink, with their arguments becoming increasingly passionate and scarily realistic at times. Evans too had the pleasure of sparing with Magrath – their heated exchange of brotherly rivalry was a real stand out moment of the show.
Mackenzie has some of the hardest rules to adhere to, including dancing on the tiny Playhouse stage, but she was superb as the “outsider” of the group, struggling to find her place in the family rules laid out before her. (She also deserves extra kudos for managing to clear broken glass from the dining table, totally in character).
As the stressed out matriarch (who must clean to keep calm), McCrystal was a whirlwind of dusters and pill popping, absolutely owning the stage with a character we will all recognise from family Christmas-time, while Guse as the wheelchair bound Francis makes the most of his short time on stage – unable to talk clearly thanks to his recent hospital stay, Francis makes his impact in more physical ways!
Philip Welsh has clearly enjoyed directing this production – there’s a lot of precise physicality involved with the increasingly specific rules laid down by Holcroft, all of which is choreographed fantastically.
Mark Mortimer‘s set – an open plan kitchen and dining area – was surprisingly realistic, and includes a dishwasher and oven in the kitchen, and a beautiful Christmas tree. There’s been no expense spared here in terms of props, and judging by the chaos at the end of the production (which the actors are then in charge of cleaning up post show), there’s going to be a shortage of mince pies in Northampton before we get to the big day itself!
It was a festive treat to see something a bit different at The Playhouse – a real challenge of a production that the team should be incredibly proud of.
Funny, thought provoking, and occasionally feeling very, very familiar – Rules for Living is a show you don’t want to miss out on this festive season.
Rules for Living runs at The Playhouse Theatre, Clare Street, Northampton until Saturday 15 December. Tickets are £9 each (£8 concessions) and may be booked by telephoning the box office on 01604 627791 (answerphone) or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. All details are on the theatre’s website at playhousenorthampton.com
Becki is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. She also works for Royal & Derngate as Marketing and Press Assistant. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Becki also blogs at StageyRebel