Have you ever been to a family Christmas where you feel like the only person who’s noticed that everyone else in the room is completely insane? Well that’s what we all tumbled into on a rainy Tuesday evening at the Dorfman for Sam Holcroft‘s Rules for Living, Nicholas Hytner‘s final hurrah at the helm of the National.
Two enormous scoreboards flank the stage – the cast are forced to obey the rules enforced on them throughout the play. “Matthew must sit to lie” or “Sheena must drink to contradict” are emblazoned on the wall for all to see. At first this strikes me as an over-extended drama game, a technique devised from too many ‘impro’ classes, but by the end of the first half we are in an entirely different ball game. These restrictions end up not only garnering genuine hilarity, but also radically concentrating the subtext of the characters. This is down to some real heart in this play, all drawn out beautifully in Marianne Elliot’s direction, Adrian Sutton’s music and Chloe Lamford’s design.
Miles Jupp and Stephen Mangan, as brothers Matthew and Adam, realise the sniping grit of 40 year old sibling rivalry in glorious technicolour. Their other halves – alcoholic, intelligent Sheena (Claudie Blakely) and irritating actress Carrie (Maggie Service) do their equal best to throw every spanner, egg, sprout, bun or turkey-leg into the works as they can, and everyone is ordered about by mother Edith, incessantly wiping surfaces and quaffing painkillers – Deborah Findlay’s performance is so chillingly close to home for me that I can barely watch it.
It is no wonder then, as the play hits the middle of the second act, that this war of attrition becomes an outright melee of epic proportions with all five snarling like rabid dogs and the Christmas lunch covering them all from head to toe. Wrapped up only slightly too neatly, Rules for Living is Ayckborn on speed, brilliantly funny and terrifying, whilst painting a picture of family life that is very close to home. Holcroft is surely one of Britain’s new powerhouses of comedy – and Hytner ends his stint at the National with a big, messy bang. 4/5
Review written by Samuel Clay.
Rules of Living is currently showing at The Dorfman, National Theatre until Wednesday 8th July. For more information on the production, visit here…