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Rules For Living (National Theatre Dorfman)

Sam Holcroft paints a dysfunctional family Christmas in her new play at the National

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Playwright Sam Holcroft has been bubbling under for some while but she now comes into front-line focus with Rules for Living, a sharp, sardonic domestic comedy that puts a family through the Christmas wringer without once making you feel it is imitation Alan Ayckbourn.

Not for nothing, though, did Marianne Elliott direct a fine revival of Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings. She's cast Holcroft's play to something like perfection and encouraged them to act not only in comic relief to each other, but also to a series of illuminated cognitive-behavioural therapy signals that flash up above the state-of-the-art open plan kitchen in Chloe Lamford's rectangular Dorfman design.

This device of prodding commentary on the family ructions and confessions is not always (actually, not often) comprehensible, but it does raise laughter at the expense of the specimens on show thrashing around in the opposite of domestic bliss while doing their best to sound foolish, mixed-up and sympathetic.

Stephen Mangan and Miles Jupp, both superb, are two brothers, Adam and Matthew, engaged in legal careers of contrasting fortune, Adam still blighted by his failure, as a cricketer, to maintain the line and length of the exemplary Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath. As on the pitch, his balls fall short of their full potential, and he's prone to let fly with a beamer or two to unsettle the batsman.

His wife, Sheena, played by Claudie Blakley as a character in search of a nervous breakdown, has just about survived countless hostile spells, and is the object of increasingly affectionate attention from Miles, who's turned up for the "festivities" with a blowzy actress girlfriend, Carrie, a wonderfully immune and insensitive Maggie Service.

Presiding over these faux-jolly japes, charades and killer card games (the programme helpfully explains that the game of Bedlam has ever-changing rules which are secret until you find out what they are) is Deborah Findlay's magisterial matriarch, Edith, who can make an aside about no silver in the dishwasher or carrots being prepared a little less dumpily sound like a jewelled aphorism of Congreve.

There is much jumping on table tops and an hilarious food fight that makes your own experience of Yuletide tensions seem like child's play. This is family fall-out as a regular treat, and to complete the picture we have Edith's wheelchair-bound husband Francis (John Rogan) reciting expletives like cracker mottoes (he's suffered a post-operation stroke) and granddaughter Emma (Daisy Waterstone) exacerbating Sheena's fully deserved sense of inadequacy by demonstrating full-blown symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. As most of us know, the family that stays together preys together. Laugh? I nearly cried.

Rules for Living runs at the National's Dorfman Theatre until 8 July 2015