Review: Rules For Living (Rose Theatre Kingston)
There is more than a hint of Ayckbourn about Sam Holcroft's comedy (first seen at the National in 2015) depicting a dysfunctional family Christmas that falls apart within minutes of the turkey hitting the table. The middle-class setting, underlying tensions boiling over into farcical violence, deeply unhappy characters covering up their misery with assorted eccentricities and addictions. It's the kind of tragicomic stuff that kept Ayckbourn's loyal fan base rolling in the aisles of Shaftesbury Avenue back in the day.
The twist, or gimmick, here though is that each of the characters has a repeated behavioural command to play ("Matthew must sit to tell a lie", "Carrie must stand to tell a joke") as though it's a giant game of theatrical charades, with the instructions beamed up on the walls of Lily Arnold's striking house set.
Initially, this is a lot of fun but starts to feel increasingly contrived as the evening wears on. While Jane Booker's plummy matriarch's compulsion to manically clean anything within reach in a bid to ease tension – while also self-medicating with whatever pills and potions she can lay hands on – is highly amusing, Carlyss Peer as the younger son's annoying actress girlfriend is saddled with the unenviable character tic of breaking into dance at moments of stress, a repeated behaviour pattern that feels implausible and ends up becoming downright annoying. Similarly, requiring the older brother to respond to every single situation with a funny accent and name-calling stretches credibility to breaking point, despite the considerable skill of Ed Hughes in the role, as does the food fight at the end which smacks of the writer conceding that she doesn't know how to end the play.
This is a shame as there is still a lot to enjoy in Simon Godwin's sparky production. Some of the dialogue is very funny indeed and the palpable tension between the two brothers and their lecherous, stroke-afflicted old Dad (Paul Shelley, impressive if underused) is convincing.
There is a terrific performance from Laura Rogers, venomously funny but subtly poignant as Nicole, the older brother's increasingly bitter wife, desperately trying to exert control over her life by embracing any alternative therapy going, but unable to resist the lure of the bottle when everything kicks off. As the brother-in-law who adores her, Jolyon Coy delivers a lovely study of an essentially well-meaning milquetoast, endlessly using food as an avoidance tactic for dealing with the truth.
It's a mixed bag, but an entertaining one, and with Christmas approaching it should appeal to theatregoing cynics who still fancy something with a festive flavour.
Rules for Living runs at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 18 November.