I hate to use a cliché, but… we’ve all been here: The Family Christmas. The annual festive get-together that starts with good intentions mixed with a dollop of faux-festive cheer which inevitably descends into tiffs, tantrums and tempers that smoulder, flare and explode. Old family rivalries surface, resentments seethe and, inevitably, alcohol plays its part. And games. Oh, the games, the I-really-don’t-want-to-play-this syndrome, the decades-long winning-streaks scenario and the new-comer, the interloper, who’s never played before and who inevitably cleans up. It’s win-at-all-costs versus it’s-only-a-game whilst Christmas cheer takes a back seat.
This excruciatingly well-observed play by Sam Holcroft has it all – in spades (cliché alert and pun intended). Her family of Christmas-gatherers love each other and hate each other in equal measure, there are mixed-messages and misunderstandings galore, there’s rival adult brothers and competing partners, there’s Mother Hen clucking and cleaning like there’s no tomorrow and there’s the returning stroke-struck, wheel-chair-bound patriarch whose
main contribution to the pouring of oil on troubled waters is commanding his wife to f*ck off. Frequently. The only decipherable words that he utters.
Rules For Living is seriously funny. A comédie de (middle-class) moeurs that gets up a head of steam through the increasingly vitriolic verbal jousting of the dysfunctional characters, who can only operate within the parameters of their own individual, self-imposed “rules” – helpfully displayed in Brechtian-style projected tag-lines – before descending into a farce of epic proportions with enough squirty-cream to ensure it really is that traditional white Christmas.
We have the amazingly versatile Ed Hughes as Adam, son, brother and can’t-be-arsed husband. He lost his career as an England cricketer, mainly due to his helicopter Dad’s insistence that rather than bowl fast he should emulate
the line and length of Glenn McGrath (how quickly has that guy become a commentator cliché!) and whose defence mechanism (rule) is to take on different accents/personas to mock those who attack him. Boy, would I have loved to have been in his audition: “Good morning Mr Hughes. Could you say this speech, please? In twenty-seven different voices.” It’s a role to die for and one that Hughes carries off with ultimate chutzpah.
Matthew (Jolyon Coy) is his brother who basically couldn’t stop lying even if he were the last man standing. He has a love-lech fantasy about his brother’s wife, he’ll say anything to escape an awkward moment, up to and including an unintended proposal of marriage, and he has a wonderful habit of spraying everyone in crumbs as he speaks with his mouthful of mince pie. (Yep, it’s a rule.) Great work from Coy: internal-seething is his speciality.
His partner and unintended is Carrie, played with seismic exuberance by Carlyss Peer, a bundle of inappropriate energy and blurted-out less-than-bon-mots. Carrie is an actor – and it’s not as easy as one might think to depict an actor on stage. Peer forgoes the OTT mwah-mwah-dahling (yep, another cliché alert) schtick and gives us a neurotic St. Vitus’s dance of a performance as she strains at the limits of her own rules of engagement with
new company. It’s funny and it’s actually quite frightening.
Nicole, Adam’s Wife, is delightfully played by Laura Rogers, coming across as assertive, in control and just a little unhinged – particularly as she delves deeper into the claret. She’s got an ailing daughter confined to her room despite it being Christmas Day, she’s got a good-for-nothing husband whom she’s kicked out to a Travel Lodge and she has a strong and stroppy stance on feminist turkey carving. She needs rules just to survive so slightly
unfortunate that drinking is one of them: when the wine runs out she knows where the vodka is stashed.
How on earth does Mother – who has been “cooking for days” and for whom Christmas is akin to a military campaign – cope with all this? To be honest, not very well. Edith is played with adrenaline-fuelled festive gusto by the excellent Jane Booker and – one has to ask – how much emotion memory has gone into her character? Doesn’t she ever learn? She wants Christmas to be perfect but it never is. But this time with husband Francis returning from his hospital bed surely the family will be on their best behaviour and all pull together to make it a joyous occasion.
Some hope – particularly as grumpy arse-and-breast fondler Francis (Paul Shelley) is determined to enjoy himself on his own terms (and mainly at Carrie’s expense). And of course, it’s the Xmas Game that is the final catalyst
for disaster. “Bedlam” is the new divertissement this year – a card game of such unfathomable rules that it’s impossible to play without violent argument – which, of course, is the point of all yuletide frolics. The rules of the game have helpfully been put into the programme so that we can all read them, take them in and still be none the wiser. Puts me in mind of my own family’s Beat-your-neighbour-out-of-Snap!-Match!-Pool! a game of such rarefied intensity that, while the adults clawed each others’ knuckles to bits the kids crept away to a quiet corner and wept silently to themselves. Yes, in Bedlam, Holcroft certainly rattles my cage and, I suspect those of most of the audience.
The Uber-Santa controlling all this seasonal mayhem is Director Simon Godwin, nicely placed to curate this histrionic havoc-and-games spectacle as author of “Ting Tang Tommy”*, a compendium of parlour games. Yes, Godwin knows his onions, and his sprouts and his Christmassy conundrums. He’s a master at managing comic timing, spatial inter-action, and the visual gag.
Having brought the pot to simmer he knows exactly the right time to let it boil over and flood the stove, and the kitchen and the house. He appears to be well-practiced in the art of the domestic riot and the controlled experiment of getting a turkey to fly – once it’s been cooked and carved – is a wonder to behold: the show’s worth seeing for that moment alone. Even better, though, is that at peak-riot the 15-year-old room-confined Emma appears, surveys the adult war-zone and with understated incredulity demands to know “What the f*ck are you doing?” Emma is played by the alternating Charlotte Coppellotti and Bonnie Kingston.
Yes, the show really is a riot (critic’s cliché, can’t help myself) confined in Lily Arnold’s cleverly functional set which works well on the Rose’s multipurpose stage with its adaptable auditorium. Get to see it if you possibly can – you will not be disappointed.
Review by Peter Yates
Edith must clean to keep calm. Matthew must sit to tell a lie.
Everyone creates their own rules for living. But what happens when an extended family gathers for a traditional Christmas dinner, and each of them rigidly follows those rules?
Christmas day will never be the same again. As the drinks flow and the obligatory games intensify, family resentments rise and relationships are pulled apart with a bang.
Rules For Living
Tue 07 Nov – Sat 18 Nov
Written by Sam Holcroft | Directed by Simon Godwin
A Rose Theatre Kingston, English Touring Theatre and Royal & Derngate Northampton co-production
Tue 07 Nov – Sat 18 Nov
*Note: “Ting Tang Tommy” is available at