Thursday 26 March 2015

Theatre review: Rules for Living

For the final production in Nicholas Hytner's 12 years in charge of the National Theatre, he brings out one of the star directors of his tenure, Marianne Elliott. But in a final season that has brought big-name actors and writers back to the South Bank, it seems a bit surprising that his swansong would be a family comedy - set at Christmas, but premiering in March - by a less well known playwright, in the smallest of the permanent theatres. All becomes clear though on watching Sam Holcroft's high-concept comedy Rules for Living: Hytner wanted to go out with a party. The unseasonal setting isn't distracting as Christmas is just the easiest excuse to bring a family together: Matthew (Miles Jupp) brings his girlfriend Carrie (Maggie Service) to stay at his parents' home for the first time, where they'll be joined by his brother Adam (Stephen Mangan) and his wife Sheena (Claudie Blakley.) Before lunch they'll play an unnecessarily complicated board game, as is the family tradition.

But unbeknownst to them, they'll be playing long before the cards come out, because Holcroft has taken the little tics and habits that people use to score points off each other, and turned the characters into game pieces.

So Chloe Lamford's in-the-round set is a game board dominated by scoreboards which tell the audience what rules each player must obey - e.g. Matthew must sit down to lie, Adam can't mock someone unless he puts on a comedy accent. As the play goes on the rules get more complicated - Sheena must interrupt someone and take a drink if she wants to contradict them - and by the second act they have goals - Carrie must stand up and jig to tell a joke, until she gets a laugh - that get them on the scoreboard.

So calling it high concept is no exaggeration, but then that's the sort of thing Elliott specialises in, and right from the start her fast-paced production takes the audience along for the ride. The characters and their individual quirks are well-drawn, with Deborah Findlay as Matthew and Adam's mother Edith (rule: must clean to keep calm) often stealing the show with her passive-aggression. She has a particularly glorious moment when failed actress Carrie (Service delivering a breathlessly energetic performance) reveals her sister is a successful ballet dancer, and Edith instantly and cuttingly passes judgement on her.

The play's consistently funny though - Matthew's rule that he has to be sitting down and eating to lie means Jupp is constantly scrabbling around the stage to find food and a chair when he's confronted with a question he doesn't want to answer. It's wittily written, enthusiastically staged and full of great comic performances, and by the penultimate scene another reason Hytner might have wanted to end on this one becomes apparent: After spending his last few years in the job supervising a major renovation of the building, he just wanted to trash the place.

Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft is booking in repertory until the 8th of July at the National Theatre's Dorfman.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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