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Rules for Living

This darkly funny play is at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 18 Nov - and it's a real cracker says John Clarke.

Christmas provides a rich seam for dramatists to mine. As scattered families gather together in a hothouse atmosphere, domestic bonds unravel, intimate secrets are uncovered and hidden stresses are laid bare.

All of which makes the comedy drama Rules for Living, an enormously recognisable slice of family life, although, hopefully, none of our festive gatherings are quite as anarchic as the events that unfold on stage.

It all starts innocently enough with the return of two brothers to the family home. Matthew, a successful solicitor, played with a winning innocence by Jolyon Coy, brings his current and exuberant girlfriend Carrie, an actress who liable to burst into song at any opportunity (a superb extrovert performance here by Carlyss Peer).

Elder brother Adam, a less successful solicitor and former English cricketer who finds relief from stress by adopting funny accents (powerfully portrayed by Ed Hughes) is already there with his tense, red-wine drinking wife Nicole (beautifully played with a sense of impending disaster by Laura Rogers) whose belief in cognitive therapy sets her at odds with the rest of the family.

Presiding over all is Adam and Matthew’s mother Edith (a splendidly judged performance by Jane Booker), a woman who wants to run Christmas day with military precision – “the turkey will be ready at 1300 hours” – while attempting to prepare for the homecoming of her husband from hospital following an as yet undisclosed medical emergency.

As the day wears on, the title and the structure of the play is made clear. Family rules appear on an illuminated board above the stage. Matthew, we’re told, has to sit down when he lies, Carrie has to dance when she tells a joke, Edith has to dust and self-medicate when she becomes stressed.

It’s as if all the characters are involved in a special Christmas game in which all their actions are governed by the rules that apply to them, a conceit mirrored by the actual card  game “Bedlam” the family attempts to play before lunch is served.

Eventually, of course, the stresses and strains become too much and we’re left with a family battered, bruised and changed forever by the cathartic Christmas climax played out in the second act. That we can emerge from this smiling is down to the comedic skill of writer Sam Holcroft and director Sam Goodwin.

First produced at the National Theatre in 2015 this revival by the Rose in  conjunction with the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and the English Touring Theatre is a theatrical tour de force. Full praise, too, to set designer Lily Arnold, whose claustrophobic but artfully constructed stage set not only reflect but adds to the frenzied events on stage.

As a pre-Christmas treat, it is, as a famous comedian used to say, a real cracker.

Rules for Living is at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until Sat 18 Nov.

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