Sunday 17 September 2017

Rules for Living

Royal and Derngate, Northampton
17th September 2017 – matinee

‘Should I read a play before I see it?’ is a question that I’m sure plagues many theatre-goers, and the answer is, of course, entirely subjective. As a rule, I prefer to read Shakespeare’s plays before seeing them, otherwise I would spend the entirety of the play trying to catch up with the language, rather than enjoying the specifications of the production. But when it comes to contemporary drama I err towards ignorance, and Simon Godwin’s regional premier of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living (which debuted at the National Theatre in 2015) is a good case point upon which to ponder my stance.

I have read Rules For Living and now, having seen it, I can say that the cons of doing so far outweigh the pros. The pros: I read the play a year and a half ago when I thought there would be little chance of me viewing a staged production any time soon given that it had premiered only a year before. And I thoroughly enjoyed it! I thought it was clever, witty and fast paced enough to hold my attention during what was a rather difficult time for me. However, Godwin’s production has highlighted how my own expectations can hinder enjoyment of the present theatrical experience.

Naturally, the play is much more cohesive onstage. Briefly; brothers Matthew and Adam have returned to their family home for Christmas with their partners in tow. Old rivalries rear their ugly heads and merry chaos ensues. The (necessarily) vast amount of stage directions in the script are a little overwhelming, hence the complex ‘rules’ that bind each character (eg. ‘Matthew must sit and eat in order to tell a lie’) translate far better onstage and as a consequence are much funnier - imagine Ayckbourn crossed with Churchill's Blue Heart. When I read it I was acutely aware that this was no ordinary farce. Sure, Holcroft superbly skewers the foibles and shortcomings of the middle classes (as all good farces do); barbs are directed towards the daytime tv nourished fads of gluten/lactose/carbohydrate-free diets and the ridiculous amount of pressure we place on ‘family time’ during national holidays which inevitably sucks all the fun out of them. But her ingenuity lies in the way she does this via an interesting spin involving the conventions of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I admit to having a personal interest in the subject as I’m currently over a year into CBT myself, so it was refreshing and reassuring in a way to see a play which tackles this issue in a humorous way. Yet, I’m now aware that I subjectively placed more focus than is perhaps warranted on this aspect of the play – I found that, onstage, the convention is handled in a more flippant manner, and it veers close to being merely a superficial shooting point from which to create havoc, which means that what is in reality a complex psychological concept here veers close to the edge of oversimplification.

This isn’t to say that play isn’t funny – it’s really, really funny – this is more a musing on the way our own biases prejudice our readings and interpretations. Holcroft has crafted an unerringly British psychological farce, in which the best way to respond to the absurdities of modern life is to have a damned good laugh at them! The play really succeeds in analysing the minutiae of competitive family hierarchies and the friction between wanting to please, wanting to win the metaphorical ‘game’ of life, while also wanting to be independent. Both Matthew and Adam have entered into the family profession – law – even though their hearts lie with acting and cricket, respectively, while the imposing figure of their father, Francis, clouds their lives on both a conscious and subconscious level.

Jolyon Coy and Ed Hughes do a stellar job with Matthew and Adam, especially Hughes who displays a tireless array of accents and whose incredulous reaction to his surroundings is a sheer joy. However, I couldn’t help but imagine how Miles Jupp and Stephen Mangan (Matthew and Adam in the original NT production) would have played these roles. Some of the lines, inflections and mannerisms of the characters seemed tailor made for them. I admit, this is yet another pitfall of being overfamiliar with the play to begin with. Elsewhere, Carlyss Peer is a marvel of energy and optimistic naivety as cringeworthily inappropriate actress, Carrie, and Jane Booker is pitch perfect in her portrayal of the classic ‘keep calm and carry on’ type matriarch, Edith.

Godwin admirably makes the play his own, his direction of the building tensions and increasingly ridiculous ‘rules’ the characters must adhere to pays off in gleefully theatrical fashion, culminating in what is possibly the messiest, and most entertaining food fight I’ve seen onstage. I don’t envy the crew tasked to clean up before the evening show! Lily Arnold’s design is ingenious. It’s satisfying on an aesthetic level, particularly in the unbelievably quaint auditorium of the Royal theatre, and, as opposed to Chloe Lamford’s abstract, and slightly obvious boardgame set up in the National Theatre production, Arnold situates the action in a firmly established ‘family farce’ territory. The set is brightly coloured, homely, and feature classic staples of farce (a staircase and doors for well-timed entrances) which work well as a cosily familiar counterpoint to the more modern aspects of Holcroft’s script.

Rather selfishly, I have used Holcroft’s play, and Godwin’s production, as a cipher for analysing my own foibles and presumptions, and so I urge everyone to take this as a parable on how you should value every production for its own merits, and not, as I have done, pre-empt a play based on its past. Rules For Living is a confident and unashamed farce in a theatrical landscape where farce is seen as rather old hat, or uncool, and for all of Holcroft’s unapologetic slapstick and populist jibes I admire her. Godwin’s production is a joy, and is guaranteed to make you cringe, empathise, and most of all, roar with laughter.

Rules for Living plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 30th September and then tours.

In the foreground – Ed Hughes as Adam and Jolyon Coy as Matthew (background - Laura Rogers as Nicole and Carlyss Peer as Carrie) Photography by Mark Douet.

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