Rules for Living

Dorfman, National Theatre, London

© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

Sam Holcroft doesn’t hold back in Rules for Living. Imagine Alan Ayckbourn ratcheted up a few decibels with a no holds barred free-for-all food fight thrown in. And you’ll get some idea of what Holcroft is bringing to the table.

But there’s a little more to it than repetition of the family Christmas from hell syndrome though director Marianne Elliott paints it in unusually garish technicolour.

Holcroft is nothing if not versatile. I remember her original, intensely moving revision Vanya at the Gate, Notting Hill. And Dancing Bears, her contribution to Clean Break’s Charged about women in prison in which she confronted the gun and knife culture of Britain’s young black community.

So she’s not afraid to confront issues, head-on. In Rules for Living the always informative NT programme – maybe one of these days, they should perform the programme rather than the play – informs us that the underlying theme of Rules for Living is CBT, cognitive-behavioural therapy, whereby patients/client are helped to see `unhelpful’ patterns or traps of behaviour. We all have them.

Out of this, Holcroft creates a demonic, anarchic comedy rooted in some cruelly authentic observation. Does it work? In the sense that after the storm, transformations occur, yes, here is a play that shows people changing and truth-telling emerging via graphic examples writ large on stage as if game-show gags: we see how characters can only get their needs met by performing certain habitual traits: over-eating, drinking, mocking, and in the case of Deborah Findlay’s hysterically controlling mother, obsessive cleaning.

© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

Does this make for good theatre? Well, it may certainly be uncomfortable for some for Holcroft takes no prisoners, her humour and progression to domestic melt-down ring painfully true. And needless to say, the acting is perfection.

When you have a cast that includes Claudie Blakley and Stephen Mangan plus Findlay as the spick-and-span, pill-popping, keep-the-show-on-the-road mother with a cameo performance of gleeful groping from the wheelchair bound John Rogan as the family patriarch, there is much to make one wince as well as appreciate.

She’s a brave woman, Holcroft. She may not make many friends with Rules for Living. But her observations are spot on.

First published in Reviewsgate, April 2015