First performed at the National in 2015, Sam Holcroft’s dark festive comedy Rules for Living starts out simply enough. Brothers Adam (Dickon Farmar) and Matthew (Adam Hampton-Matthews) have come home to spend Christmas Day with their mum Edith (Rosanna Preston) and convalescing father Francis (Tom Tillery). They’re accompanied by Adam’s wife Sheena (Hattie Hahn) and daughter Emma (Helena Braithwaite), and Matthew’s new girlfriend Carrie (Kasia Chodurek), and it doesn’t take long for the audience to realise this is a family with issues – though it’s only as the play unfolds that we begin to appreciate just how dysfunctional they really are.
Entertainment based on nightmare family celebrations is, of course, nothing new – you only have to turn on Eastenders on Christmas Day to see that. But what makes this play unique is a twist inspired by the concept of cognitive behavioural therapy. The actions of each member of the party are governed by a seemingly arbitrary rule, which is made known to the audience but not to the other characters. Matthew, for instance, must sit down to tell a lie, while his brother Adam must adopt a silly accent whenever he’s mocking someone. It’s all good fun to begin with, not least for the audience as we keep an eye out for each character’s rule in action. But what starts as a game soon turns into a bitter dispute, with each character so focused on scoring points against the rest that it never occurs to them this could be a game with no winners.
The play is a challenging one to stage, with the script demanding a degree of choreography and meticulous attention to detail – but director John Chapman rises to the task admirably in this accomplished new production at the Tower Theatre. The excellent cast, too, who display expert comic timing and complete conviction throughout, enthusiastically seize the opportunity to bring their dysfunctional characters to full three-dimensional life. This is not a play where two characters speak while everyone else sits around doing nothing; whether it’s Adam Hampton-Matthews and Dickon Farmar making silent but fervent rude hand gestures at each other behind the others’ backs, or Kasia Chodurek and Hattie Hahn’s hilarious range of facial expressions, there’s always something to look at, and we learn just as much – if not more – about their relationships with each other from observing their reactions.
The game-play element is portrayed through the use of a screen, upon which each new rule is displayed just at the opportune moment, and which in Act 2 converts into a scoreboard as the “game” begins to heat up. This part of the play becomes quite complex, especially once all the characters start talking at once, but it also lends the play a clever and interesting new dimension that actively engages the audience and encourages us to listen to what each of the characters is revealing about themselves every time they speak or act.
Perhaps not your traditional feel-good festive show, but we’ll have plenty of those to choose from in London this month. So for something a bit different (and a few lessons on what not to say to the family this Christmas), this entertaining, high-quality production is highly recommended.
Rules for Living is at Tower Theatre until 7th December.