Rigorously ruled, hilariously explosive and heart wrenchingly real – Alexandra Packer reviews Theatre Group’s first show of the term, Rules for Living.
Set in the intimate Alec Clegg studio, we enter a familiar staged scene of a family’s living room, decorated for Christmas. Though the seasonal choice may be initially jarring now that we are well on our way into the new year, the quiet carols that play over the speakers set the mood for Rules for Living’s family Christmas full of jibes and expectations that may seem all too familiar for many in the audience.
Rules for Living’s unique premise involves a set of ‘rules’ that are periodically projected above the characters. These ‘rules’ build in complexity as the play develops and individually expose each character’s unique coping mechanism to get through the strenuous family Christmas dinner. As the rules wrap a tighter and tighter hold on the family, they must eventually break free, and the resulting explosive finale encourages the audience to consider what the costs of the social rules we place on ourselves in our real lives truly are.
Act 1 begins with Malachy O’Callaghan’s bumbling Matthew reassuring his anxiously gauche girlfriend Carrie, played hilariously by comedic powerhouse Alice Waller, that her social faux pas are not the end of the world, although she could do with toning it down a bit. As the first rule appears - Matthew must sit down to lie - the slapstick nature lands well with the audience and laughter ensues. However, as he continues, we feel for Carrie. Matthew is so willing to tell anyone what they want to hear that he twists himself into lies that move from white to truly ugly. Soon, we meet Polly Dey’s Sheena, who masterfully portrays a mother’s exhaustion with the weight of her and her child’s stresses on shoulders only made for one. Thom Zeff brings out the emasculated nature of her husband Adam – never willing to take blame and bitter at what he could have been.
Our main sextet is completed by standout performances from Emily Bell and Ben Greenwood. Bell’s increasingly frazzled nature as matriarch Edith, complete with fantastic facials, completely embodied the nature of a grandmother pressured by the need for perfection of this dinner and her family being together. Greenwood’s physicality as post-illness Francis was truly side splitting with hilarious body language and diction (or purposeful lack of it)! Finally, Bethan Green’s brief appearance as chronically fatigued Emma in her pyjamas provides a sobering and sweet moment amid the final chaos, bringing an innocent energy that snaps the tone to poignant.
Rules for Living is a demanding script that is at most points physically restrictive for the actors and requiring of skilful timing to obey the ‘rules’. This could have leant towards clunky movement, but Charlie Crozier’s directing commands a clear and comedic flow throughout. With characters movement and interactions reflecting both the written rules for living and their subconscious motivations, whilst captivating the audience throughout. This performance is a credit to director Crozier and assistant director Eddie Tansley as they successfully intertwine themes of mental health, familial relationships, societal norms, and the perfectionism that results.
Staging and props by producers Louisa Walsh and Meg Fergus on are homely, Christmassy (celebrations chocolates!) and impressive with near enough a full Christmas dinner provided each night – and I can only imagine the risk assessment undertaken for the brawling food fight. Projections designed by Annie King-Ferguson aided clarity of the rules and gained many laughs themselves for the comedic sketches of each character. All in all, Rules for Living was a pleasure to watch and managed to invoke many laughs, moments of reflection and even tears in some audience members as we consider our relationships with others and what societal or personal rules we consciously or subconsciously put ourselves through to continue them.
As the rules envelop a tighter and tighter control over the characters, we are treated to a positively explosive final food-fight scene, and we become truly aware. If this dinner cannot be perfect for Edith, if Carrie cannot make this strange family like her through her humour, if Matthew’s reliability is questioned and so forth, for the adults this will be awful and world ending. Emma, the child, is the only one mature enough to even try to be cognizant of her ‘rule for living’. The play ends on a split note, we all have the potential for change – not everyone will, but maybe we just need a bit of anarchy to realise it.
Words: Alexandra Packer
Image credit: Abby Swain