Rose Theatre, London – until 8 November 2017
Guest reviewer: Jeanine Jones
You only have to observe the frozen, poker faces of London commuters to see that we have all developed certain survival mechanisms for everyday life. Our actions in certain situations, as well as our subconscious coping strategies, are our individual Rules for Living which is both the premise and title of the intelligent and insightful play by Sam Holcroft. Premiered at National’s Dorfman Theatre in 2015, Rules For Living sees its revival at the Rose Theatre Kingston this month with a promise of hope for many.
Directed by Simon Godwin, the domestic comedy drama sets up an immediately recognisable scenario in which a repressed, dysfunctional family come together for the ritual of Christmas Day. We meet the archetypical home counties mother Edith (Jane Booker) who has organised her Christmas Day event programme with military precision, and has been cooking for a week – no stone has been left unturned and she even has a spare present ‘in case of emergencies’. We learn that Edith’s motive for desperately keeping everything together is to give her husband Francis (Paul Shelley), who is in hospital after cardiac surgery, the perfect family Christmas.
Enter Carrie (Carlyss Peer), every inch the exuberant and irrepressible actress, as the catalyst to set tensions simmering. Carrie has been brought home by her boyfriend Matthew (Jolyon Coy), to celebrate their first Christmas together, however his tendency to people please has left her waiting for him to ‘put a ring on it’. Despite trying to shrink to fit, the charming but clumsy and innocently tactless Carrie has unknowingly failed to endear herself to Matthew’s family.
Matthew’s older brother Adam (Ed Hughes) and his ‘gluten, sugar and lactose free’ wife Nicole (Laura Rogers) are concealing their ailing marriage behind a united front, whilst trying to establish their daughter Emma’s (Charlotte Coppellotti/Bonnie Kingston) ‘energy envelope’. Suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and adrenal stress, Emma is staying in bed upstairs for Christmas day, much to the dismay and bewilderment of Edith who at only fourteen had raised her own siblings ‘can you imagine I didn’t want to crawl up on the sofa and have someone talk to me about my energy envelope?’
The clever device of displaying each characters’ ‘rules for living’ on projector screens adds the farcical element to the play, building the intensity of the piece as more and more layers are added. Whilst these rules are “rooted in real emotional impulses” by the playwright Holcroft, the physical comedy is reminiscent of the ‘sit up, stand up, lie down’ improvisation game immortalised by Whose Line Is It Anyway. It is hilarious to watch Matthew grapple with the props needed to carry out his ‘rules for living’: ‘Matthew must sit and eat to tell a lie’, and we see Carrie Irish dancing and doing the Thriller routine as she ‘must stand and dance around to tell a joke until she gets a laugh’.
The characters begin to truly unravel when the Father, Francis (Paul Shelley) comes back from hospital – to great amusement as Edith lists the ‘out of bounds’ conversation topics to her family: above all if they cannot say anything nice they must not say anything at all, and there are to be ‘no electronics’ at the table. Now wheelchair bound, Francis is a shadow of his former self with a breathing tube after a delayed, post-operative stroke. We learn that the former judge has not only had a philandering past but reigned terror upon his sons during their childhood, wreaking havoc with their self-esteem and resulting in neither son pursuing their true ambitions. As Francis is only able to remember his sons as children, the family members are thrust into the roles they once assumed, with all of dynamics of sibling rivalry. This also allows the issue of our ‘rules for living’ learned early in life to be addressed, through the two brothers whose own childhood issues remain unresolved. Edith’s perfected response to her husband’s numerous infidelities has been resolute denial and downing liquid aspirin, her ‘rule for living’ being to ‘clean and self-medicate to keep calm’.
The obligatory Christmas Day board game that follows is an analogy of the premise of the play, each player having a secret rule, and the other players having to guess the rule and follow it. The play hurtles along as a masterclass in farce, becoming increasingly complex with polished dexterity from the actors who do not miss a beat. The tension builds to an unexpected profession of love, and ultimately to a spectacular, explosively climatic meltdown on all fronts, descending into outright anarchy. Both insults and food are slung around, brilliantly choreographed by fight director Kev McCurdy, and Emma (Adam and Nicole’s daughter) finally emerges at the top of the stairs to the chaotic display. Even after the complete ruination of Christmas Day Edith insists her son use a coaster, and it’s back to business as usual.
Jane Booker plays the tightly wound, Hyacinth-Bucket-like Edith perfectly, master of her tight ship and asking familiar questions like ‘who’s shoes are these’, ‘who loaded the dishwasher?’- she even cleaning the tinsel and her playing cards to calm herself. Lines such as ‘they all turned out in their Christmas best to be with their old Mum’ will make her instantly recognisable to audiences. Her spectacular turkey fling and the line ‘if you have nothing nice to say go f*** yourself’ will make Edith the hero for put-upon mothers everywhere.
Carlyss Peer is a force as the all-singing all-dancing, wonderfully childlike Carrie, whom those with big personalities will thoroughly relate to – ‘being myself I can be a bit much for some people’. Her presence in the play is a shining example of the importance being authentic – ‘if you wanted a wallflower for a girlfriend you shouldn’t have picked me’. She is ultimately a hero also as she walks out on her boyfriend after his lies and stringing along.
Jolyon Coy is both solid and charismatic in the role of Matthew, and also gives an excellent rendition of A Modern Major General from the Pirates of Penzance– he is completely believable as the would-have-been actor, had drama school not been perceived as his Father as a far less worthy pursuit than law.
Ed Hughes brings plenty of charm and energy as the pedantic Adam and shows off a myriad of accent skills in delivering one of his ‘rules for living’: ‘Adam must affect an accent to mock.’
Laura Rogers gives a solid performance as the uptight Nicole, who has fought hard to save her marriage and just wants to be loved. Nicole introduces the central message of the play, explaining that CBT ‘helps change core beliefs – you create rules for living to help you get on with life. Her character is also a feminist voice, questioning the tradition of the man carving the turkey – ‘sometimes tradition is wrong, I don’t see why the man should be the one to carve.’
Paul Shelley gives a believable portrayal of the irreverent, wheelchair-bound Francis spouting expletives, true to form groping Carrie around the dinner table. In spite of his flaws Francis is likeable, which is the skill of Shelley in understanding his character motivation.
The characters written by Sam Holcroft are extremely well-defined, their motivations and psychology clear to the audience, and underlined by the director Simon Godwin– for actors this is a fine example of relentlessly pursuing an objective. The snappy dialogue and brilliantly written script include excellent ‘arguing couple’ writing with hilarious lines such as: ‘You don’t need to kill it you just need to carve it’, and ‘Is that what you’re wearing, Adam?– ‘apparently not’.
Holcroft defuses the sensitive topic of the effects of a stroke with comedy – Carrie’s line ‘don’t get up’ to the wheelchair-bound Francis receives a huge laugh from the audience.
The scene in which Francis gropes Carrie is also tricky territory, addressing the fact that women are often blamed for sexual harassment– ‘It’s not your Father’s fault when she puts them on display like that’.
The set design with a dividing doll’s house by Lily Arnold, with Mark Melville’s accompanying music box theme, is the perfect backdrop for a play which highlights how childhood issues and belief systems affect our adult life.
The projection of the ‘rules for living’ above the stage, with video design by Andrzej Goulding, gives us an important visual aid for the complex story. The family meltdown is mirrored by the screen image breaking up which is a clever device to add tension. Lighting design by Matt Daw includes beautiful snowflakes floating down, enhancing the Christmas setting of the play. It is a particularly nice touch by wardrobe designer Hilda Sarah Greenwood that all the characters’ Christmas paper hats match their outfits.
Rules for Living is a rollercoaster ride of a play with strong female characters, and a variety of food for thought. It reminds us never to shrink to fit, not to tolerate lying and to follow our dreams. It is an honest portrayal of the pretences kept up among families, with familiar situations such as dating someone from a different family background, and sibling rivalry. We are also reminded of the changing dynamics in a family as parents get older, and the prevalent issue of sexual harassment. The presence of Emma and her psychological state urges us to consider children being affected by the impact of divorce.
With the increase in depression and mental health issues in the UK, the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) component which is so central to the play – Holcroft was in therapy when she wrote it – will encourage audiences to think about their own ‘rules for living’, including negative thoughts and belief systems which prevent progress. Through the character of Nicole the play voices the advantages of CBT, a talking therapy aimed at helping people with psychological, emotional and physical illnesses including depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, eating disorder and insomnia. The hope presented in the play is that CBT can help change core beliefs and create new ‘rules for living’ to help people get on with their lives.
I found Rules For Living to be an extremely cathartic experience, and could thoroughly relate to Carrie so keen to please and ‘entertain’ people, rather than just be herself.