Rules for Living
By Sam Holcroft
Directed by Marianne Elliot
Designer Chloe Lamford
The Dorfman Theatre,
at The National Theatre, London
Wednesday 29th April 2015, 20.00
Carrie – Maggie Service
Matthew – Miles Jupp
Sheena – Claudie Blakley
Adam – Stephen Mangan
Edith – Deborah Findley
Francis – John Rogan
Emma – Daisy Waterstone
Reviews for Rules for Living compared it to Alan Ayckbourn and regular readers will know I am not an Ayckbourn fan. However, It is fairer to say that it’s an Ayckbourn situation, writ larger and funnier, though it also has the strong added set device beloved of Ayckbourn. Here the action takes place in a modern kitchen and living room on Christmas Day, but the kitchen is surrounded by a game show foor plan laid out on a gym floor, with a scoreboard at each end of the rectangular set. The set is surrounded on all four sides by the audience at circle and upper circle levels, but only on the long sides at stalls level. From the circle it’s like looking down into a giant shoebox.
It was unusual to have read so many reviews in advance. It had a batch of three stars, then four from Michael Billington in The Guardian. The Ayckbourn comparison is misguided. They may be Ayckbourn style characters, but they’re in a drama operating on two levels. The comparison that came to my mind was Peter Shaeffer’s The Black Comedy, because the Christmas Day family dinner story (the Ayckbourn bit) has to take place while the characters are obeying rules which are external to the base story (the Sam Holcroft addition).
L to R: Matthew (Miles Jupp). Adam (Stephen Mangan), Edith (Deborah Findley), Sheena (Claudie Blakley)
These external rules are based on CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. What is happening is that there is a scoreboard with five names. When a rule flashes up, that character has to abide by the rule. It’s not at all complex when you’re there.
Matthew (Miles Jupp)
Take Matthew (Miles Jupp). He is the older successful lawyer son, and has come for Christmas with Carrie, his actress girlfriend, who he has been seeing for a year. Early on, Matthew gets the rule MATTHEW MUST SIT TO TELL A LIE. So as an audience we know when he is lying or about to lie. Each rule gets doubled during part one, so Matthew gets an addition: MATTHEW MUST SIT AND EAT TO TELL A LIE. This means that to keep the story going he has to tell a lie, so ends up eating sprigs of thyme and then carrot peelings from the waste bin.
Carrie (Maggie Service)
Carrie (Maggie Service) is a cheerful jokey blonde, and she gets the rule that CARRIE MUST STAND TO TELL A JOKE, which gets extended to CARRIE MUST STAND AND JIG ABOUT TO TELL A JOKE. This fits her personality, desperately striving to appear “fun.” It’s her first visit to the family Christmas.
Adam (Stephen Mangan) with scoreboard above
The younger brother Adam (Stephen Mangan) is also a lawyer, but was a professional cricketer until he lost his nerve. His rule is ADAM MUST AFFECT AN ACCENT TO MOCK. Then later MUST AFFECT AN ACCENT AND CALL NAMES TO MOCK. Adam is a mocking person.
Sheena (Claudie Blakley)
Adam arrives with his disaffected wife, Sheena (Claudie Blakeley). They have a daughter who is upstairs and can’t come down to Christmas dinner because she’s having a nervous crisis. Emma is, like Abigail in Abigail’s Party, discussed but not seen … until the very end. Sheena gets SHEENA MUST DRINK TO CONTRADICT, then later MUST DRINK AND INTERRUPT TO CONTRADICT. Sheena has to use a prop to say what she means.
Edith (Deborah Findley)
The fifth participant is Matthew and Adam’s mother, Edith (Deborah Findley). Edith is a control freak who starts preparing Christmas Day in the previous January. Edith’s rule is EDITH MUST CLEAN TO STAY CALM, extended to EDITH MUST CLEAN AND SELF MEDICATE TO STAY CALM. In other words Edith’s cleaning is OCD. Edith had many great moments, focussed on bullying the new arrival, Carrie. Forcing Carrie’s hair into a pony tail in Edith’s obsession to tidy anything and everything in sight was one great moment.
The family are awaiting the return of Dad (John Rogan) from hospital for the meal. Dad, or Francis, has had a stroke and is in a wheelchair. He was always a lecherous old bugger, while being a High Court judge. He was another control freak. When he turns up he has lost the power of speech. So we’re in for the Christmas from hell indeed. Adam and Sheena are separating nastily. Carrie wants Matthew to marry her, but Matthew has been in love with Sheena for years. Adam knows Matthew has long phone calls with Sheena twice a week. Edith is trying to enforce her rules (such as no swearing, play Christmas games) on everybody else. The list of things they were forbidden to discuss at Christmas was long and had the audience in fits.
In the second half, the scoreboard starts to fill with the internal goals people have when they exhibit bizarre and controlling behaviour. So Adam has to follow his rules (mocking in a funny accent and name calling) until he can deflect blame on to someone else. Sheena follows the rules until she gets the last word. Edith follows the rules until she gets reassurance. Carrie has to joke and jig about until she is rewarded with a laugh.
I’d expected Stephen Mangan to use strong and odd accents, but it’s more the realistic change of tone and mild accent change that some people employ to put quotation marks around the unpleasant comment they’re making. It’s a distancing device. You know someone who does it. I know people who use mocking advanced RP, mocking mummerset, mocking whining Cockney, mocking French accent like this.
The game of Bedlam. L to R: Adam, Francis, Matthew, Edith
The Christmas game is a ludicrously complex card game called Bedlam, brought along by Matthew. This imposes arbitary rules (such as pay compliments, only speak in the third person) thus creating yet anothr layer of enforced behaviour.
The entire cast are marvelous. We’d bought tickets because Stephen Mangan was in it, but they were all at the same level. The scoreboard tots up the score as each actor indeed “scores points” in the argument, culminating in a winner … the first to hit ten. It climaxes with Francis getting ever more lecherous and rude from his wheelchair, the relationship issues exploding, and in the greatest food fight seen since a late 1960s Rolling Stones or Who tour. We see a whole Christmas dinner set out, then thrown about. Matthew and Adam are in a physical fight across and over all the furniture, everyone joins in. Everyone is hilarious, even Francis in his wheelchair stuffing down turkey through it all.
If this sounds like a CBT lesson, or a psychotherapy seminar it really isn’t. It’s the funniest play I’ve seen since The Black Comedy in fact. It was the sixth in our annual intensive week in London for theatre, and the best production of the six by a mile. So I’m not awarding it three stars, or four stars. For me it’s a full unequivocal five. A great comedy with outstanding dialogue and a great layering device. I’ll order the script because I want to read it too. I think there might be considerable subtlety on CBT that we missed first time.
A criticism? Only one. We thought the arrival of Emma and her final line (no plot spoiler) was the natural perfect end and we didn’t think it needed a short black out and a coda of departures, putting a genuinely sad note on the story. Nothing wrong with a sad note, but it had hit the sort of extreme theatrical peak you really can’t follow with Emma’s last line.
A tip. We were on the short side of the rectangle, at the kitchen sink end of the rectangle behind one scoreboard, facing the other. Inevitably we lost around 10% of the action (no more). It didn’t worry us. The best seats must be in the middle of the long sides, where you can see both ends. It’s a play that has mileage for future productions, and I can’t see it’s confined to a shoebox theatre, nice as that was. It could be done with one scoreboard on a conventional proscenium stage or on a thrust stage.
Good essay on CBT and long actor and staff bios (they all deserve and have long bios), nice graphics, but for the National Theatre, unusually thin.
STEPHEN MANGAN on this blog:
“Episodes” is my favourite TV sitcom of the last decade.