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Rules for Living

Sam Holcroft
Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre

Maggie Service (Carrie), Stephen Mangan (Adam), John Rogan (Francis), Deborah Findlay (Edith) and Miles Jupp (Matthew) Credit: Simon Annand
Deborah Findlay (Edith) Credit: Simon Annand
Stephen Mangan (Adam) and Claudie Blakley (Sheena) Credit: Simon Annand

Try to imagine Sir Alan Ayckbourn writing one of his Christmas plays with a mildly surreal, post-modern twist and you pretty much have Rules for Living.

Under the direction of Marianne Elliott, three couples gather at the home of the oldies to indulge in carefully orchestrated Yuletide celebrations with the added complications of a built-in gameshow.

This largely performs like a Brechtian writing challenge, since the characters are subconsciously obliged to follow rules posted on large electronic boards at either end of the stage.

To give a feel for the style, in their earliest incarnations, before additional complexities are introduced, we discover that “Matthew must sit to tell a lie” and “Edith must clean to keep calm”.

The actors perform in-the-round, occupying a space designed by Chloe Lamford and containing kitchen, dining area and garish lounge, with some of the sightlines rather limited.

The personalities are all flawed, usually by obsessions. Initially, Deborah Findlay as Edith, the mother, comes over as a mild cleanliness freak, which is unfair since the mildness soon dissipates.

Father appears late in the day, in a wheelchair and seemingly having lost his speech and possibly mind following a heart operation and stroke.

As we gather during the 2½ hours, in true Philip Larkin style, they are the main reason why their two lawyer sons seem uncomfortable in their own skins.

Miles Jupp's Matthew desperately wanted to be an actor before going over to the law, while perennial failure Adam, played by Stephen Mangan, was a fast bowler good enough to play at a full Lord's who lost his nerve in front of 28,000 people and was reduced to the rat race.

Their partners are long-suffering. Matthew has brought Maggie Service playing jokey actress Carrie to her first family Christmas and it soon becomes a sure bet that it will be her last.

Claudie Blakley's Sheena may have been there before but has reached the end of her tether with the ultimate loser, hardly helped by a 14-year-old daughter suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, the consequence of an obsession to be better than anyone else in every aspect of life.

Sam Holcroft mixes these characters into a relatively standard Christmas dystopia though there are some good jokes and for a time, the signed constraints inject additional humour.

The Ayckbourn style social comedy is ramped up after the interval when the family begins to play this traditional Christmas party game, all too appropriately Bedlam. This turns the afternoon into complete mayhem, which must be great fun for the actors and a nightmare for the backstage cleaning team.

The foibles are over-indulged so that the jokes wear thin some time before the writer ends the evening with a series of strong and meaningful messages about growing up. Ironically, wisdom comes courtesy of the least likely character.

It is good to see a young writer being given the opportunity to show her wares at the National and, without detracting from the delights of Sir Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, that should be the primary purpose of the small-stage Dorfman Theatre.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher