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A festive family dinner party degenerates into a darkly comic orgy of shock revelations and angry confrontations in the latest play by prize-winning young British dramatist Sam Holcroft (Cockroach), the final new work to premiere at the National Theatre under outgoing artistic director Nicholas Hytner. The well-worn format of Rules for Living taps into a rich dramatic tradition, from Edward Albee to Neil Simon, from Abigail’s Party to Festen. Holcroft and director Marianne Elliot, lauded on both sides of the Atlantic for War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, attempt to give these familiar ingredients a contemporary psychological spin. But their collaboration still feels creaky and dated, a broad farce that works a little too hard for its sitcom-level laughs and clownish slapstick gags.
The traverse-style stage is furnished as an upscale family dining room somewhere in Middle England. Designer Chloe Lamford‘s set is outwardly naturalistic but with stylized floor and wall markings adding a knowing artificiality, making it part game show studio, part basketball court. The matriarch of the house, Edith (Deborah Findlay), is a fastidious control freak who appears to be channeling Margaret Thatcher by way of Maggie Smith as she prepares to host a fraught Christmas lunch.
Edith’s two grown-up sons are Matthew (Miles Jupp), a successful lawyer who once nurtured acting ambitions, and his older brother Adam (Stephen Mangan), a former cricket star who abandoned sporting glory to pursue his own lackluster legal career. Matthew is with his gratingly effusive actress girlfriend Carrie (Maggie Service), Adam with his wife Sheena (Claudie Blakley) and troubled teenage daughter Emma (Daisy Waterstone). As they anxiously await the arrival of their sick father Francis (John Rogan) from hospital, the brothers and their partners bicker, banter, flirt and hint at dark secrets.
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The tone is light and comic, but Holcroft is keen to suggest hidden horrors below the polished surface. Her key dramatic device is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of psychotherapy grounded in patients identifying their self-destructive habits and finding practical ways to break them. The characters onstage discuss CBT in literal terms, but the theme is also illustrated metaphorically by the card game Bedlam, which randomly assigns different rules to each player that the others have to guess. Hence the illuminated scoreboard above the stage, which gives each character a defining psychological tic: “Adam Must Affect an Accent to Mock,” “Sheena Must Drink to Contradict,” “Edith Must Clean to Keep Calm,” and so on.
As the story progresses, more detail is added to these one-line character sketches. With each fresh twist on the scoreboard, the protagonists adjust their behavior accordingly, slowly ramping up the hysteria levels from broadly naturalistic comedy to anarchic knockabout farce. There is even a real game of Bedlam, which lives up to its name, unraveling into a loud shouting match. The arrival of a wheelchair-bound, barely sentient Francis seems to trigger a volcano of buried tensions as adultery, alcoholism, marital discord and serious Daddy Issues all erupt into the polite dinner party setting.
The scoreboard device is a smart Brechtian touch, exposing the schematic underpinning of so much traditional drama by rendering subtext into text. Unfortunately, Holcroft and Elliott do not seem keen to deconstruct formal cliché on more than a cosmetic level. Indeed, it appears they still expect the audience to care about these relentlessly dull and self-absorbed characters, who would not be out of place in some starchy 1950s Terence Rattigan play about emotionally repressed Brits in well-appointed drawing rooms. The notion that so many unresolved family tensions have been lurking in the Freudian basement for decades, only to explode over a single yuletide meal, is also a clunky contrivance too far.
That said, there has historically been a healthy domestic audience for broad farces about the English middle classes, from Brian Rix to Alan Ayckbourn to Mike Leigh. Rules for Living could well appeal to that traditional demographic. The cast all display deft comic timing, especially during the second act, when their verbal volleys become rapid and overlapping. The jokes are hit-and-miss but mostly successful, and the final family showdown a joyously messy spectacle. It just seems a pity that all this talent and energy has been used in service of such dated and inconsequential material.
Venue: National Theatre, London (runs through July 8)
Cast: Claudie Blakley, Deborah Findlay, Miles Jupp, Stephen Mangan, John Rogan, Maggie Service, Daisy Waterstone
Director: Marianne Elliott
Playwright: Sam Holcroft
Set and costume designer: Chloe Lamford
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson
Fight director: Kate Waters
Music: Adrian Sutton
Presented by National Theatre
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