What exactly are the rules for living? Are they to do with making a guy wait a decade before texting him back? No drinking before midday on Wednesdays? Or are they, as Sam Holcroft’s latest play at the National theatre suggests, just the ways in which we do our best not to fuck up our own lives or the lives of those around us?
Adam (Stephen Mangan) is married to Sheena (Claudia Blakley). His brother Matthew (Miles Jupp) is dating Carrie (Maggie Service). All four are at a family Christmas lunch presided over by matriarch Edith, the archetypal mother-in-law who can cut with words as well as she can cook a turkey. This is the nuclear family that is tick-tick-tocking its way to an apocalyptic finale which genuinely has to be seen to be believed.
Each of the quintet has unspoken “rules” or coping mechanisms that dictate each character’s behaviour when they are uncomfortable or stressed. These are gradually illustrated on a lit scoreboard above the open kitchen in which all the action happens. For example, Matthew has to sit when he wants to lie down, his girlfriend has to stand to make a joke and his sibling can only mock if using an accent (or is it the other way round?). Over the two-and-a-half hours of the play, we see the rules morph from a simple and cartoonish device for easy laughs into a more complex and cartoonish device for easy laughs.
Rules For Living wants to be funny and it often is; lovers of a good farce or Seventies sitcoms will be at home here. It also, though, wants to speak earnestly about more weighty issues including infidelity, personal feelings of failure, coping with family members with serious illness, drug abuse and the power of (unrequited) love. It seems that Holcroft is channelling both Feydeau and Pinter as he tries his hand here at “dramedy”, a painful portmanteau at the best of times but a fitting one in this case.
As Adam, a frustrated cricketer-turned-solicitor, Mangan phones in Green Wing’s Guy and hilariously goes to town with the new situation. Findlay deserves much credit for her portrayal of Edith, a character which starts out as a cardboard cut-out comedy caricature emerges as the bleak humanity at the centre of this imploding family. Marianne Elliott’s direction is sprightly and does well to bring out the tonal contrasts in Holcroft’s chiaroscuro script.
Rules For Living is an entertaining ride. It has nothing new to say about the human condition but the admittedly gimmicky scoreboard and the memorable ending raise it a notch above its inspirations.
Rules for Living runs until 8 July at the National Theatre. Tickets are £15-£45.