Monday, 20 March 2017

Rules for Living, March 19, 2017 **

Rules for Living, by Sam Holcroft, Red Stitch Actors Theatre
 Red Stitch Actors Theatre, until April 16, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 19, 2017
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online (Comedy Festival)  April 5, 2017. KH

 Hold onto your Christmas hats and guard the Christmas turkey because Rules for Living is a bumpy ride.

In her chaotic comedy-drama, UK playwright, Sam Holcroft, attempts to expose the behavioural ‘rules for living’ that govern our human relationships and she capitalises on the intense emotions and interactions that can emerge during a family Christmas celebration.

Despite some early laughs at the expense of all the characters, this Red Stitch production has significant problems, most of which arise from Kim Farrant’s direction, although some are caused by flaws in Holcroft’s ambitious script.

Matthew (Rory Kelly), a successful lawyer with an eating problem, brings his ditzy, vulgar girlfriend, Carrie (Jem Nicholas), to have Chrissie lunch with his well-heeled family.

Matthew’s domineering mum, Edith, played with stiff upper lip and vibrating anxiety by Caroline Lee, runs the lunch preparations like a sergeant-major, abiding by her own ‘rules for living’ and demanding everyone else comply.

The rest of the party comprises Matthew’s brother, Adam (Mark Dickinson), who is an under-achieving lawyer, Adam’s boozy and demanding wife, Sheena (Jessica Clarke), their ailing daughter who hides upstairs, and finally, their dad, Francis (Ian Rooney), a former bully-boy judge who arrives late and – to everyone’s surprise except mum’s – in a wheelchair.

Holcroft plays with the notion of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by not only giving all characters a series of obsessive ‘rules’ that govern their actions, but by projecting these rules onto screens in the space.

For example, Matthew must sit and eat when he tells a lie, Carrie must jig around to get a laugh, Edith must clean to remain calm, Adam needs to affect silly accents when he mocks others, and Sheena must drink wine to allow her to argue.

This overt display of every driving ‘rule’ eliminates any subtext in the play because every character’s secret objective or inner thought is known and, although it is initially funny to see Matthew scramble to a seat or stuff his mouth with crackers every time he lies, the joke wears thin very quickly.

The family lunch descends into bedlam as they all act according to their own behavioural rules until they totally lose control and start a food fight that sees gobs of turkey and cold sprouts flying across the tiny stage.

The capable cast works very hard to make this production work, but it all ends up looking like a series of drama improvisation exercises with everyone playing a hidden objective in order to get a cheap laugh.

Yes, Holcroft’s play is a broad farce in the style of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, but Farrant’s direction lacks any variation in pace or dynamic range, leaving the actors shouting and gesticulating and the audience in a state of anxiety – especially when Sheena brandishes a real carving knife.

Perhaps, if the performances were reined in, the more complex issues of the dynamics of human behaviour might be clearer in Rules for Living, but the more reflective moments of the final scenes in this three-hour production come too late.
By Kate Herbert

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