Imagine Alan Ayckbourn clawing his fingernails down a blackboard; that’s Sam Holcroft’s “Rules for Living.” She takes your average family farce — a social occasion sunk by clashing personalities — and makes the formula explicit. Her character’s actions are overtly governed by rules, all calibrated to cause conflict, so that simmering resentments boil over into an almighty, uproarious melee.
When it does, it’s as stressful as it is hysterical: a shrill sitcom that turns laughter sour. True, knowingness doesn’t entirely offset predictability and the form often overpowers credibility, but Holcroft’s self-aware postmodernism cleverly skewers our obsessive-compulsive culture of self-improvement and self-censorship.
Holcroft plonks us into a family Christmas, the one day a year that’s run by the rulebook. Deborah Findlay’s fretful, old-fashioned Edith is a stickler, doubly so with her husband Francis due back from hospital for the day. Her two sons Matthew (Miles Jupp) and Adam (Stephen Mangan) have returned home with their other halves in tow: Carrie (Maggie Service), a histrionic actress, and Sheena (Claudie Blakley), a new-age neurotic with an unhealthy attitude to alcohol.
At each end of the family kitchen, done up like a board game in Chloe Lamford’s design, is a scoreboard, on which various rules or character traits flash up. Matthew must sit to tell a lie; Carrie must stand to tell a joke — that sort of thing.
Holcroft gradually ups the ante. Matthew, who’s watching his weight, has to eat to fib; Carrie, desperately trying to tone herself down, has to jig when she jokes. Sheena drinks to contradict. Adam must lace his sarcasm with spite. To get what they want, each has to give in to the thing they’re trying to give up. The more they do so, the more obnoxious they become, and the more imminent the inevitable implosion looms.
Holcroft holds it off for ages — frustratingly and sometimes a bit too deliberately — but the slow build makes watching almost unbearable. Try as they might, these people can’t help themselves. They’re their own worst enemies, incapable of escaping their most irritating traits. It’s so excruciating that director Marianne Elliot’s production very nearly stops being funny. Lamford’s scoreboards flash. Adrian Sutton’s jingles grow discordant. You grind your teeth to the gums — until, finally, the most glorious, furious food-fight erupts as release.
It’s a seriously canny satire. Holcroft not only ridicules our perfectionist culture, but shows the neurosis beneath and lets us feel the stress of its feedback loop ourselves. Francis (John Rogan), wheelchair-bound following a stroke, makes clear both the awful absurdity of it all and also the source of all this anxiety. A disciplinarian father, his success gave his sons every opportunity in life, and both of them blew it. Adam choked on the cricket field; Matthew bottled an acting career. They followed him into law.
Admittedly, the form has its problems. The unbreakable rules lead to some bizarre moments — Matthew tucks into a binful of carrot peelings at one stage, and Sheena has five drinks on the go — as credibility flies out the window, but a lot of the fun is watching likeable actors cope with that challenge. The play can also be too knowing for its own good and too schematic to surprise.
Nonetheless, Elliot orchestrates the escalating chaos beautifully, drawing out its tenderness en route. Mangan — so good at self-destructive masculinity — and Blakely are brilliant, showing the conflicted emotions of a marriage under strain. Jupp is mealy-mouthed as the conflict-averse Matthew, and Service’s Carrie earns both pity and exasperation. Findlay, a bit too insistent in her polishing, finds the propriety of the post-war generation.
Nicholas Hytner’s first season at the National included “Jerry Springer: the Opera.” “Rules For Living” ends his tenure with a similar sign-off: “Look after yourselves,” it says. “And each other.”