Rating: 5 stars
Will Jackson’s latest directing endeavour, ‘Rules For Living’ by Sam Holcroft, truly encapsulates the hellish nature and loathing bubbling beneath every dysfunctional family’s traditional annual Christmas gathering; the lifelong sibling rivalries, the suppressed resentments, the relationships strained to breaking point, a love that can’t be declared out loud. This play has it all, and more. But this isn’t your typical family christmas soap opera episode, Holcroft does something a lot more distinctive with this piece.
The entirety of the action is under the influence of a quasi-gameshow framing device imposing a set of rules upon each of the characters. The show begins with three aptly-named ‘Rulemakers’ announcing that we all have rules in which
we live our lives and that eventually these are ingrained into us, encoding our natural behaviours. Rules we must follow in order to survive, or stay sane as the case may be. The ‘Rulemakers’ are clad in plastic gloves and tip-toe around the open-plan kitchen giving the uneasy impression that the turmoil to follow is all part of some sick psychological experiment. Additionally, throughout the production the TV screen displays footage from hidden cameras showing the proceedings as they unfold on stage, a choice I assume of Jackson’s, which alludes to an uncomfortable Big Brother-esque quality that in this environment the individual is at their most exposed, faults and unstable coping mechanisms laid out for all to see. On one end of the stage are portraits of all the characters, names written underneath. As the ‘Rulemakers’ announce a new rule, for example, ‘Matthew must eat to tell a lie’, this is also inscribed beneath their image. Brechtian in style, these signposts for the audience allow clever comedic moments perpetuated by the dramatic irony, ie. we know when Matthew is fibbing.
As each rule appears it applies throughout the rest of the play. As more are added they accumulate. In the second act the rules are modified by a conditional element that each rule is activated until a specific condition is met. And so, like the card game the characters play called Bedlam, ‘it starts out simple but descends into madness’.
So, who are the players destined to endure these accursed conditions? There’s Edith, played by Tilds Blythe, the hilariously snooty and old-fashioned matriarch who compulsively has to micro-manage every aspect of Christmas day with military precision. Blythe is impeccable in this role, creating the perfect balance between the manic screeching of the belligerent biddy stuck in her ways, to the calm and controlled (with help from self-medication) loving mother who just wants to make it a delightful Christmas for everyone, even if she is obnoxiously meticulous about the difference between stainless steel and silver cutlery and which one shouldn’t go in the dishwasher.
Her son, Matthew, played by Iain Alexander, is blessed this Christmas by the presence of his flamboyant and jovial girlfriend Carrie, Nell Baker, who is painfully lacking in self-awareness. Matthew’s attempts to ask her to ‘be yourself… just toned down a bit’ are in vain due to Carrie’s tormentingly cringe-worthy ruling of having to stand up and dance around in order to tell one of her distasteful jokes. Baker, as Carrie, is a joy to watch. Her portrayal of the strenuous joviality of the socially awkward is priceless. From Carrie’s ‘famous teeny tiny hugs’ to her shocked exclamations of ‘Did your mum call me vulgar?!’, the Carrie moments are the ones I cherish the most in this play. Alexander also succeeds in a convincing portrayal of someone caught up in a cycle of insincerity whilst also secretly nursing a passion for his sister-in-law, Sheena (Mia Jacobs).
Adam, expertly characterized by Elliot McDowell, the would-be cricketer who ‘choked’, is the picture of self-loathing which he attempts to mask under a boisterous mocking exterior. McDowell’s outstanding use of ridiculing voices and comic timing is unparalleled. A particular moment being when his wife Sheena begs him to give her an honest answer about their rapidly deteriorating marriage (which has also been kept behind closed doors), ‘Are you in or are you out?’. After prolonging the suspense to tipping point, he answers ‘Is there an option to shake it all about?’ Adam’s coping strategy of hiding shame with drollery is evidently deep-rooted into his rules of being.
Mia Jacobs as Sheena provides a sensitive and thoughtful performance, capturing the quiet malevolence of the repeatedly disappointed wife. Her speech entailing her daughter’s cruel affliction with anxiety disorder requiring treatment of CBT is touching and real. This background element of the play seems to make a comment on perfectionist culture and the neurosis beneath it getting stuck in negative patterns of thought resulting in a painful dysfunctional relationship with reality. Whilst the other characters bounce about the stage becoming more and more exaggerated, Jacobs succeeds in grounding it. This results in a superbly measured but also hilarious and ridiculous show to get you in the mood – or more likely, to warn you of the Christmas season to come.