The family Christmas dinner. Now, most adults know the risks involved with such a major event on the annual calendar. Some people go to considerable lengths to escape it all and avoid the unnecessary squabbles with mum and dad, rows on controversial subjects and kids crying over presents they didn’t receive and wished they had.
For Sam Holcroft’s play, Rules For Living – which premiered at the National Theatre, Dorfman in 2015 – the worse case for a family Christmas dinner is performed on stage. Directed by Simon Godwin, it’s Rules For Living’s first revival at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, a collaboration with English Touring Theatre and Royal & Derngate, and it is as funny and shocking as you might suspect. The shock factor is a warm welcoming and healthy one – full of slapstick, unexpected mince pies flying across the room and cringe-worthy party crackers.
So what’s the connection between rules for living and Christmas? Holcroft uses an interesting scenario – the family Christmas dinner – to depict the way we, all, decide to live, creating rules for ourselves to cope with day-to-day situations. It’s a challenging occasion where we utilise our rules to the max. The idea of meeting newer members of the family, including the in-laws, trying to strike up an interesting conversation without offending the other person and drinking mulled wine whilst stuffing your face with Christmas cake and turkey can be scary. Yet, we all have to do it.
Carrie (Carlyss Peer) is a fun and energetic lady who loves Matthew (Jolycon Coy) to bits, but she has a problem with sitting down and telling jokes. She has to please everyone with a song and a dance. Matthew (Coy) cannot bear to hurt people’s feelings, so he sits down and stuffs his face with mince pies whilst saying a few white lies.
His brother, Adam (Ed Hughes) has a complex over his career in comparison to Matthew who had just turned partner in his firm. To hide his insecurities, he mocks others by calling the offender a funny name and putting on a variety of accents for extra effect. Adam’s wife, Nicole (Laura Rogers) can’t contain herself when she drinks. She’s well behaved when sober but needs to drink to contradict and has to have the last word in every argument.
Mother of the family Edith (Jane Booker) is a control freak. She likes to clean and cook, yet has to self-medicate to calm her nerves. Her husband, Francis (Paul Shelley) is wheelchair bound having suffered a stroke, yet he seems to have a good time believing his sons Matthew and Adam are still teenagers and groping Carrie in public is completely appropriate.
Set designer Lily Arnold has constructed an intricately detailed doll house divided from kitchen and living room, and there’s enough space above for display panels to describe the rules for each of the characters. While the play is going on, a rule will come up and you get to watch the character do their worse with these rules.
The script is also witty. Whilst Nicole vigorously attempts to cut the turkey, Edith calls out, ‘you don’t need to kill it, you just need to carve it’. This is just one of the few lines that please the crowd. And despite how topical the play is, of the psychology of our minds, in creating rules for survival, the humour never seems to end.
The speed at which the show goes is super fast with lots of dialogue in the first half and a lot of action in the next. The cast is in top shape for this electrifying play with some cast members having to fall down suddenly and stand up immediately. I wouldn’t be surprised if the actors were laughing inside and enjoying their own performance. Kudos to them for getting the timing right, keeping their stamina up and training hard to ensure they didn’t go home with a bruise.
Christmas comes early on at the Rose Theatre. Rules For Living will either make you feel like you’ve seen this, all, before or be proud your Christmases aren’t as chaotic as this one. And it’s a jolly good ho ho ho!