Review: Rules for Living at Tower Theatre

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.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

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.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

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.

Review: The Canterbury Tales at Tower Theatre

For someone who spends a lot of time sitting on stationary trains (and almost missed the start of this show because of a public transport delay), the premise of Tower Theatre’s new production of The Canterbury Tales is all too familiar. A group of passengers stranded on a train to Canterbury West – among them a soldier (Toñi Madja), a musician (Paul Willcocks), a librarian (Sarah Bower), a handywoman (Emily Carmichael) and a lawyer (Alistair Maydon) – are encouraged by the train guard (Alexa Wall) to turn to storytelling to pass the time, with each of them competing for the audience’s winning vote at the end of the evening.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Directed by Angharad Ormond, the resulting collection of tales is a slightly disjointed but wholly entertaining evening, alternating between comedy and tragedy, and with no shortage of topical commentary; though the tales are all based on stories written centuries ago, it doesn’t take too much of a twist to bring some of them bang up to date. Like Constance, the central character in the lawyer’s story, who’s forced to flee her home and later becomes the sole survivor of a slaughter at the hands of religious extremists; Griselda (Arabella Hornby), of the librarian’s tale, who’s trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage; or Alice (Deborah Ley), better known as the Wife of Bath, who’s been married five times but has never managed to achieve the one thing she really wants – gender equality. The production makes no secret of its political orientation in these moments, with cast members reciting key facts and headlines relating to the refugee crisis, and Alice referencing recent news from Alabama in her plea for women’s rights.

Unsurprisingly, this means that there are points in the production where things get very dark indeed, but luckily there’s also plenty of humour – much of it quite cheeky – to lighten the mood. Both the bookie (Ryan Williams) and the soldier entertain their audience with stories about two men chasing the same woman, set centuries apart but both with predictably disastrous results. The priest (Paul Graves), meanwhile, brings the evening to a cheery musical conclusion with his cautionary tale about the proud rooster Chauntecleer, who learns the dangers of falling for flattery.

Although each story only has one narrator, the production is a great example of ensemble performance, incorporating physical theatre, sign language and clowning at various points. Music also plays an important part in the show, whether it’s a cappella 60s hits, haunting folk melodies or tongue-in-cheek opera, and this adds an extra dimension to an already lively production, with strong vocals and harmonies from the whole cast and musical accompaniment provided by the multi-talented Paul Willcocks.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Parts of the show have a slightly improvised feel, and with more characters than stories I did leave wondering if a different combination of tales might be told each night – if so, this would be another clever twist (and would also keep the cast on their toes). Whether or not that’s true, though, this new take on The Canterbury Tales brings Chaucer well and truly into the 21st century, and is certainly a lot more accessible than the dry text most of us will remember studying at school. It’s great fun, slightly bonkers and well worth a visit.

The Canterbury Tales is at Tower Theatre until 20th July.