In its own words, Rules for Living is “a comedy about surviving your family”, but the inverse of this statement would have been a more appropriate tagline. The play follows an extremely dysfunctional family’s attempt to have a nice Christmas, and in order to do so the characters must follow some strict rules: ‘Matthew (a brother) must sit to lie’ , ‘Sheena (wife of Adam, another brother) must drink when she contradicts’ and ‘Edith (the matriarch) must clean to keep calm’, to name a few. Unfortunately, these rules are not enough to quell the rising hysteria that eventually envelops the characters and their festive meal.
Upon entering the theatre, I was greeted by Christmas music, and interestingly, a character was already on stage: Emma, the granddaughter, was absorbed in mundanities as the audience filed in. The set was a busy dining room bursting with props, but my eye immediately focused upon the backdrop to the stage: a huge, vibrant collage resembling wrapped gifts and featuring rules for all the characters except the aforementioned Emma, as well as Francis, the father who is mysteriously absent for most of the first half. Rather ominously in the centre of this collage, the phrase ‘ANARCHY RULES’ was displayed in large, chaotic capital letters, creating an impeding sense of doom before the action even began.
The collage is more than just a brilliant backdrop, as it is integral to the play, with the rules lighting up as a character is about to obey them. This created a fun guessing-game for the audience, and allowed for plenty of dramatic irony which added to the comedic effect. Matthew’s ‘must sit to lie’ rule was a prime example, as the full extent of his fabrications are revealed by his bottom being firmly glued to a chair for the majority of the play. He lies most prolifically to his besotted girlfriend Carrie, who, as his seated stance exhibits, he does not love despite his marriage proposals and prostrations of devotion. While there is certainly an element of schadenfreude here, Carrie’s devoted naivety did make it difficult to mock her completely, especially towards the end of the play when her intelligent and intuitive side was revealed. It was not only Carrie who had a deeper side; the rest of the characters had their inner thoughts, desires and fears exposed as well, and these little revelations served as a a microcosm for the ultimate revelation: this play is not simply a comedy, but teaches a lesson about finding yourself and accepting your imperfections.
From the outset, the performance was clearly meant to be farcical, and no character embodies this better than Carrie, an outrageously flamboyant actress-wannabe (see what they did there?) who is a walking, talking and, unfortunately at times, singing and dancing, stereotype of a bimbo. The other characters were also framed as stock characters, and while this was obviously deliberate, at times it did come off as grating. Adam’s penchant for breaking into ridiculous accents whenever he was mocking something was one of the rules, but became so repetitive I eventually become as irritated as the characters on stage by it. Carrie’s extremely affected and joyous tone was equally annoying. However, I am hesitant to critique this too harshly, as there is a very fine line between deliberately acting like a stock character and being one, so perhaps my impression of the rather one-dimensional characters was meant to be the point, and I certainly found traits in all the caricatures that were instantly recognisable and relatable. In summary, though the execution may not have been perfect, and the layers of the characters were not effectively displayed, I was able to understand what was intended by the production.
Another criticism is that I found it difficult to distinguish between scenes, due to the fluid feel of the play that was largely created by the use of the same set throughout. However, I greatly enjoyed Matthew’s performance of ‘The Modern Major General’s Song’, which he executed with remarkable fluency that astonished the audience. This provided a pleasant comic interlude to the tense atmosphere. Another moment of hilarity was an absurd food-fight-cum-brawl-cum-fist-fight that broke out over the Christmas lunch, which was interrupted by an astonished Emma who came downstairs to witness the chaos while the ‘anarchy rules’ sign was illuminated in the background.
Ultimately, the main message of the play is that it is okay not to be perfect, and this was evidently the one ‘rule for living’ that these characters did not have and desperately needed. Hopefully, audiences would do well to keep this rule in mind when they spend time with their own families this Christmas.