Writer: Sam Holcroft
Director: Will Jackson
Reviewer: James Garrington
We all have rules by which we live our lives. Rules to help us get by, to avoid upsetting those we care about, to keep us out of trouble. What happens, though, if a situation becomes so intense that everyone’s rules start getting battered and breaking as they are taken to more and more extremes?
Sam Holcroft’s play is set in a typical middle-class household where the family is gathering for Christmas dinner. As the day wears on, tensions mount, as everyone’s rules get increasingly ignored until everything snaps. There is clearly a large Ayckbourn influence at work, though Holcroft adds another dimension. Everyone’s rules are exposed for the audience, but not the characters, to see. Not only that, but there is also an ongoing theme of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the way we get stuck in negative thoughts and behaviour.
Ayckbourn plays are notoriously deceptive, and many an amateur group has fallen into the trap of thinking they are easy to perform. Rules for Living takes all of those challenges and adds on more of Holcroft’s own – and therein lies the difficulty. To do the play justice requires a skilful and experienced production team and cast, and it appears to be a step beyond the – albeit talented – team at 3Bugs Fringe Theatre.
It is clear that there are major budget constraints at work here too, which really don’t help. The concept involves the play being set within a game-show context, with electronic scoreboards which flash up each character’s rules a moment before they follow them – “Edith must clean to keep calm”, or “Matthew must sit to tell a lie”, creating a subtly comic moment as Matthew duly slips into a seat to tell his girlfriend he loves her. Replacing the scoreboards with three Rulemakers who announce the rules from the side breaks the flow and doesn’t quite work.
The cast all work hard at what they do, and their enjoyment of the production shines through, though sometimes at the expense of emotional depth leaving us with characters that are not quite believable. They all seem to be having too much of a good time, even as their relationships crumble. Where the audience should be torn between laughing and squirming in their seats at what they are witnessing, it’s all a bit too farcical. Where we should be left questioning our own rules for living, we have a memory of a good laugh at a food fight.
Among the performances, there is good work from Flora Wilson Brown as Emma, with a very nicely-judged portrayal of a child with emotional difficulties. Kieran Hayes also stands out as stroke-afflicted father-figure Francis. There is a lot going on here, and sometimes it seems to lack thought and attention to detail – a freshly ironed shirt that is clearly nothing of the kind, a grope that is pivotal to establishing a character but is actually just a clutch at the arm. It’s also surprising that no-one has questioned the safety implications of smashing a bowl, resulting in shards of glass flying towards the audience and the slipper-wearing cast treading gingerly around both broken glass and greasy, slippery chicken scattered across the floor.
The saving grace of the production is actually the quality of the script. Holcroft is a talented writer, and Rules for Living is a piece that definitely deserves to be performed. This production doesn’t really do it justice, and it’s maybe not the best choice for this group at this time.
Runs until 30 November 2016 | Image: Elgfris Photography