Bitingly funny and sharply observed, Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living gets a well-deserved second wind in this new touring production, following the play’s successful run at the National in 2015. Directed with energy and pace by Simon Godwin and cleverly utilising Lily Arnold’s innovative design, the show is a fresh take on an Ayckbourn-style set up: a middle class family gathering where tensions will rise and secrets will be unearthed.
Holcroft’s twist is that she makes explicit those unspoken rules that people live by. These are displayed to the audience, making us complicit in all the petty deceptions, and much of the play’s humour comes from the discrepancy between what characters are saying and what we know they mean. This is deployed more subtly (and, to my mind, to better effect) in the first half of the play than the second. The rules become more convoluted as the action unfolds, ramping the humour up to slapstick levels as events barrel towards their inevitable conclusion.
A universally strong cast, adept at both verbal sparring and physical comedy, play for all the laughs they can get. Jolyon Coy’s Matthew is a particular joy, tasked with sitting down every time he lies, which, since he is mortally terrified of conflict, is often. Ed Hughes neatly captures his brother Adam’s bottled up frustrations, locked in marital combat with his increasingly disappointed wife (Laura Rogers). Fussing matriarch Edith (Jane Booker) struggles to keep up the pretence of happy families, her own ‘rules for living’ the product of an oppressive marriage to the domineering Francis (Paul Shelley). As is the way of these things, the role written with the broadest strokes is that of Matthew’s brassy, outspoken girlfriend, Carrie – for all bastions of middle-classness must be threatened by the arrival of a déclassé outsider – but Carlyss Peer does an admirable job with the material she has.
While it may seem unnecessarily mean to find fault with such a smartly crafted play, it’s hard not to be disappointed that such impressive talents have been applied to such well-worn material. A play skewering the traditions of a straight, white, middle-class, nuclear family still ends up being a play about a straight, white, middle-class, nuclear family; when you treat something as a norm that needs deconstructing, you are still tacitly accepting that it is the norm. I can’t be the only one sat in the audience thinking, this looks like no family I know, and no Christmas Day I have ever had. Rules For Living may be presented as a drawing room comedy for the digital age, but in reality, it’s a piece that could have as easily be written 20 or 30 years ago, and updated with a few jokes about gluten. For all its shiny modernity, at its core it feels depressingly dated.
Rules For Living is at the Theatre Royal Brighton until October 21st, and touring the UK until November 18th. For more details, click here.