We all develop ways of coping with the stresses and strains of modern life but most of us don’t adhere to them as fanatically as the family depicted in Rules for Living, a new play by Sam Holcroft, currently playing in rep at The Dorfman.
An article at the front of the programme describes the whys and wherefores of CBT (Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy), which, I’m guessing, was the starting point for this cleverly devised comedy. The goal of CBT is to make “patients” recognise their various emotional traps and ultimately help them discontinue the coping strategies (Rules for Living) they have devised. In a nutshell it ultimately makes them feel better and more confident.
The problem is that the family gathered for Christmas in Rules For Living seem unaware that they are in need of a dose of CBT. Indeed the therapy is only mentioned as a possible course of action to combat the negative attitude of Emma, the teenager who spends most of the play off stage.
As Alan Ayckbourn brilliantly portrayed in Seasons Greetings, Christmas is often the catalyst for family tensions and so it is with this play. Edith, the mother, who is hosting Christmas lunch, plans everything with a military precision, is desperate for everything to run like clockwork and for everyone to have the best time ever. The trouble is that her two sons, Matthew and Adam, have unresolved issues with one another, Adam and his wife, Sheena are in the throes of splitting up and Matthew’s girlfriend, Carrie feels inadequate and, as a consequence, is embarrassingly loud. Add to this the fact that her domineering husband, Francis, has a few hours respite from hospital and her nerves are as highly strung as a Stradivarius.
How does she cope? Well, displayed on a games board above the stage is “Edith must clean to keep calm”. And she’s not the only one. The other members of the family have similar strategies relayed for all to see. Matthew “must sit to tell a lie”, Carrie “must stand to tell a joke” and so on and so forth. As a result we’re totally aware of what is to come and thus the humour is intensified, especially when later on their rituals become even more involved. We soon realise the problems each character faces and the descent into chaos for each is inevitable, especially when we are forewarned with the playing of a board game entitled Bedlam.
Marianne Elliott’s direction is spot on, whilst Chloe Lamford’s open plan kitchen, complete with Aga, is a joy. The performances, too, are exemplary. The excellent Stephen Mangan as Adam, the failed would-be cricketer, is brilliant at hiding his self loathing behind a quick, sardonic wit. His wife, Sheena, played by Claudie Blakley, excellently portrays her disappointment with life in general and succour in the odd drink or four in particular. Miles Jupp’s Matthew turns insincerity into an art form, whilst Deborah Findlay’s Edna, is a mother we all recognise. My daughter certainly did when Adam was handed a coaster for his mug so that a mark wasn’t left on the table; I received a hefty dig in the ribs as acknowledgement!
Rules for Living will have its detractors, but I’m not one of them.