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Review of ‘Rules For Living’

By Hilary Cordery

We’ve all been there, the family Christmas Day from hell. Everyone tries really, really hard but there comes a point when something (or someone) snaps and all hell breaks loose, “bedlam” to quote the aptly named card game of the 2nd Act of Sam Holcroft’s “Rules for Living”. Director Jane Buckland’s production brought this oh-so-familiar scenario hilariously to the BLT stage.

But the production was much more than a gloriously riotous and uproarious comedy. Intriguingly, we got to see the characters’ motivations, their internal “rules”, via a brilliantly designed real-time dashboard on set – top marks to set designers Jan Greenhough and Olivia Kennett and lighting/sound technicians Emma Christmas and Simon Tyrell-Lewis for bringing this wonderfully to life.

So when we read the first “rule”: “Matthew must sit to tell a lie” and Matthew duly sits down to tell his girlfriend he loves her, the audience laughed hilariously but we also began to cringe. I felt privy to information which I shouldn’t have had.

Sticking with Matthew, James Mercer gave a convincing portrayal of a man hopelessly in love with his brother’s wife but trying desperately to conceal it. I wasn’t totally persuaded that he was or had ever been a “fatty”, but that didn’t detract from a fine and very funny performance as the lawyer who had only ever wanted to sing.

As Matthew’s girlfriend Carrie, Bethan Boxall played a working class actress trying hard to fit in with her boyfriend’s middle class family but struggling somewhat, particularly given that one of her rules required her to “stand to tell a joke”. Boxall was delightful and brought great energy and comic physicality to the stage which was a pleasure to watch.

Martin Phillips played Matthew’s elder brother Adam, a once talented cricketer who had bottled it. To hide/deflect his inadequacies, one of Adam’s rules required him to “affect an accent to mock” – which Phillips managed with great skill and using an impressive range of voices. I wasn’t quite as convinced by the emotional depth of the scenes of marital discord with Adam’s wife, (Sheena played by Debbie Griffiths), but perhaps that was intentional on the playwright’s behalf? The play was a vehicle to expose/ridicule the characters’ internal form (rules) rather than to engage respectfully with their feelings.

As Sheena, Debbie Griffiths portrayed a pretentious, middle class obsessive who “must drink to contradict” and who went on to get completely (and convincingly) sloshed. Griffiths was in fine form as the angry, disappointed spouse whose husband has only ever under-achieved.

As the mother of the family, Tricia Osborne – King played the neurotic Edith with great skill. I loved her obsessive, ridiculous cleaning which she used to “keep calm”. And having planned the special day with military precision, Osborne -King brought a lovely sense of pathos to the production when all around her began to descend into anarchy.

In their supporting roles, Felix Catto as Francis, the husband/father who has suffered a stroke, managed to command the attention of the audience with no lines and limited movement. No mean feat. And Nomi Bailey as the emotionally damaged daughter of Sheena and Adam gave a lovely cameo performance at the end of the play.

This was a very funny and thought-provoking piece of theatre which included one of the best fight scenes I have seen on the BLT stage in recent seasons, (plaudits to Emma Christmas for fight direction).

Once the laughter had died down, I left the theatre feeling somewhat relieved that my own rules dashboard, and indeed those of my nearest and dearest, remain firmly out of sight.