I have to admit, the main motivation I had for trying to see this play from Sam Holcroft when it ran at the National’s Dorfman Theatre back in 2015 was some of the casting (Stephen Mangan and Miles Jupp are two brilliant comic actors), as well as hearing that they would have a full-on Christmas dinner onstage… It sold very well – plus that was peak Sunny Afternoon time – so I didn’t manage to squeeze it in. The play did also tour last year, in a new production from English Touring Theatre, but I was already very much engaged in reviews, Romantics Anonymous and planning my schedule for A Christmas Carol – so I missed out twice in fairly quick succession! And now I’ve read it, I’m even more annoyed about that, as I’d have loved to have seen the sheer amount of mayhem that unfolds.
Two grownup sons, Matthew & Adam, are back at the family home for Christmas; their father has been ill so there is even more cause than usual to bring the unit back together. Adam’s wife & daughter (Sheena & Emma) are also there, plus Carrie (Matthew’s girlfriend) has invited herself along. Everything starts off quite normally, but this family is hiding far more secrets than most – once they start to unravel, everything descends into chaos.
The title of the play comes from the idea that everyone creates their own unique set of coping strategies just to get through life, or certain high pressure situations. Throughout the course of the play, each character is given a simple rule which is gradually developed to become slightly more complex, and eventually ends up being dependent on the actions of the other characters. The playtext lays out the rules’ rules quite clearly at the beginning, meaning a reader should have no uncertainty over what is happening and what the characters’ own intentions are. However, it must have been slightly more interesting to watch the play unfold, as all you have displayed is the ever expanding set of rules (becoming a list as they are introduced, scene by scene).
For example, the very first rule is ‘Matthew must sit to tell a lie’. Whilst I would interpret that as Matthew standing means he’s telling the truth, but when he’s sitting down it could be either truth or lie, Holcroft’s intention is that when Matthew’s sat he’s always telling a lie. Practically speaking, it’s probably for the best not to be ambiguous, though it may rely on the actors having to stick quite rigidly to a certain style or set of actions while they’re contained by their rule, to ensure the audience grasps the fact that it’s always happening rather than might be happening. There is a risk that either a performance is affected, or the audience’s experience – hard to know, given that I’ve only read it.
In one scene the family attempts to play a card game called Bedlam, which sees the characters given their own rules to follow as part of the game (such as speaking in the third person) and allows them to give penalties to their fellow players when they don’t observe their rule – the players therefore have to try and pick up their opponents’ rules in order to deplete their pile of cards and win the game. “I think it might be impossible to win”, observes Adam – and he may be right, especially as far as his family’s concerned! As with their own personal rules in life, in pressure cooker situations like a big family get-together they are tested to breaking point, and if the conditions are slightly off then it may end up with everyone losing.
The play also talks about mental health, as Emma has been provisionally diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and is said to become quite anxious and overwhelmed by “busy social situations”. The play airs now outdated views from the previous generation, via Edith (Adam & Matthew’s mother), as well as the tendency for slightly ridiculous terminology to be coined – see “Energy Envelope”. The ‘rules for living’ are more important in Emma’s situation, as things that may seem incredibly mundane to others may take exceptional effort or a particular mindset.
It’s very cleverly put together, beginning with a usual family drama before descending into a soap opera Christmas on acid! In testing the rules to the extreme, the characters are forced to re-evaluate their lives and reset their rules. To me, it’s as if the role of Adam was written specifically for Stephen Mangan, so suited is it to both his comic and dramatic talents – I could even hear him speaking in a range of increasingly ridiculous accents, as per Adam’s rule if he wants to mock someone. Claudie Blakley and Miles Jupp feel similarly well cast as Sheena and Matthew.
The playtext is definitely an entertaining read, and I do hope that someone else takes it on in the future so I might get to watch it at some point.
Rules for Living is available from Nick Hern Books.