Onstage at The National, breaking life’s rules has never been so entertaining
The Rules For Living in Sam Holcroft’s eponymous new play are literal, in director Marianne Elliott’s superb in-the-round production for The National.
Scoreboards reveal each principal character’s name soon after he or she enters, assigning various rules for which they receive points whenever these are completed. Extremely funny to watch, these thinly mask the many insecurities each suffer, that can’t help but appear during what deteriorates into the ultimate dysfunctional family reunion.
Two brothers have returned to the family home for Christmas with their respective partners.
Mild-mannered lawyer Matthew, marvellously underplayed by Miles Jupp, is first to arrive.
Maggie Service plays Matthew’s girlfriend Carrie, an archetypal actress and his polar opposite. Determined to be centre of attention the minute she enters, Service is hysterical in every sense.
Soon joined by Matthew’s sister-in-law Sheena, a measured, controlled Claudie Blakely, who, we already heard, Carrie possibly offended off-stage with one of her numerous unfunny inappropriate jokes.
Sheena is soon shown as an advocate for every alternative health-trend imagined, especially when it comes to daughter Emma, recuperating upstairs from some unnamed ailment.
Her husband, Matthew’s brother Adam, arrives from his mission for cranberry sauce. Adam, an ebullient but sarcastic Stephen Mangan is also a lawyer but contrasts completely with his quieter brother.
Skeletons in the very large family closet earlier hinted at, slowly begin emerging as each character is introduced and the various rules revealed.
The unceremonious announcement of Matthew’s recent promotion, by the ever-tactless Carrie, signals sibling rivalry to surface.
Sheena explains her and Adam’s, still unseen daughter Daisy is undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy and these “rules for living” help her overcome insecurities, undoubtedly caused mainly by her parents.
Adam and Matthew’s mother Edith, the domineering demanding Deborah Findlay, finally enters, seeking the perfect Christmas for their hospitalised Father.
The family get-together turns military operation and existing tensions increase even further. It’s quickly clear where most of the brothers’ problems originate but any dissent is soon silenced with: “Darling, it’s Christmas,” Edith’s answer to everything.
It’s revealed both boys entered law to please their parents with quiet Matthew, surprisingly, once training as an actor and Adam hoping for fame as a professional cricketer.
John Rogan is father Francis, a retired judge, who, we’ve learnt, is nicknamed: “The General”. A womanising family tyrant, he finally arrives from hospital as Act One ends, a shadow of his former self.
The “Christmas from Hell” theme continues after interval with the scoreboard rules for each character becoming increasingly complicated and funny. More skeletons tumble out and relationships start to crumble.
Between: teetotal hypochondriac Sheena, drinking her weight in wine: Edith’s obsessive cleaning and self-medicating; Carrie’s appalling and literal stand-up comedy; Matthew’s over-eating and lying, and Stephen’s self-pity and sarcasm, The Priory wouldn’t know where to start.
Without revealing too much the climax comes over Christmas lunch as any remaining veneer of family decorum evaporates. Young Daisy Waterstone as sick daughter Emma, finally arrives from bed to reveal mentally she’s the most mature member of the lot.