Review: Rules for Living, National Theatre

“Let the bedlam begin”

The final play to premiere in Nicholas Hytner’s final season in charge of the National Theatre is Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living, directed by Marianne Elliott in the Dorfman. Was it a pointed decision to end his reign with a show both written and helmed by a woman, who knows? Either way, it’s always good to see this venue providing such high profile opportunities for the writers it nurtures. Holcroft’s short(ish) Edgar and Annabel played as part of the Double Feature season in 2011 and she was a writer-in-residence here at the NT in 2013, from whence this rather cracking new comedy has emerged. 

And boy is it funny, I don’t think I have laughed this thoroughly and consistently at a play in ages. As someone for whom farcical goings-on too often fall flat, I’m often left bemoaning the fact I’m sitting stony-faced in a sea of hilarity (cf. One Man Two Guvnors et al) but for once I was right with them. Holcroft’s set-up has an extended family coming together for Christmas lunch, an event for which Edith has been preparing since January. She’s looking forward to seeing both her sons, Matthew and Adam, and their partners, and they in turn are keen to see their father who has been in the wars recently. 

But it’s never quite as simple as that is it, with secrets abounding from every angle, and tension rising from the moment the first gluten-free mince pie is put on a plate. Holcroft’s innovation is to have each character governed by certain coping strategies, their ‘rules’, and Elliot’s staging turns this into an all-out contest with scoreboards tracking their progress and raising the stakes with additional sub-clauses. It may take a little time for all the pieces to click together but once all five key players are engaged and on the board, the comic energy they exude is just irresistible. 

Stephen Mangan and Miles Jupp are perfectly matched as warring brothers, each unable to let go of boyhood injustices and blithely unaware of the effect of their regressive behaviour on their other halves. It would be unfair to spoil what their ‘rules’ are but suffice to say Mangan had me laughing with pretty much his every utterance. Claudie Blakley and Maggie Service pair them well as wife and girlfriend respectively and it is marvellous to see Deborah Findlay getting the kind of dominant matriarchal roles she was born to play as the hilariously decompensating Edith. They all work well throughout but the scene with the mall playing the over-complicated parlour game was a little piece of all-too-recognisable genius, I’m still chuckling at the thought of it now. 

Alongside the universal truths that accompany all family dramas, Holcroft also weaves in a few decent jabs about middle-class hypocrisy but by and large, she blessedly avoids any kind of brow-beating issue here, she’s focused on building the kind of tightly constructed and sharply written play that is just out-and-out funny. And eve with that said, she expertly layers in real emotion too, the Act 1 closer deservedly hits hard and the final scene has a beautiful poignancy about it. The penultimate scene however has the kind of anarchic joie-de-vivre that will live long in the memory, framed wonderfully in Chloe Lamford’s design as Christmas dinner gets completely deconstructed. 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 8th July 

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