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Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft at the Tower Theatre

Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft
Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft

There have been relatively few productions of Sam Holcroft’s deceptively profound play, built around – of all things – a long out of print and utterly bonkers card game called Bedlam. This is a pity as Rules for Living is both genuinely touching and side-splittingly funny.

A mash-up of games-playing and the ups and downs of cognitive behavioural therapy, the play is set at Christmas. For that reason, one could be forgiven for feeling that the Tower Theatre Company had made a surprising choice for its November production. However, thanks to a superbly festive set, some of the cheesiest Yuletide tunes and traditional lashings of familial strife, the audience gets quickly caught up in the “celebrations”. In what is almost a parody of Alan Ayckbourn’s domestic dramadies, most obviously Season’s Greetings, Holcroft takes conventional tropes and twists them almost to breaking point.

Directing, John Chapman does an excellent job of carrying the audience along with the play’s unique demands and he is well-supported by a superb cast, all playing recognisable and uncomfortably familiar grotesques. Sensibly, he allows them full rein as the script offers little scope for subtlety. Outstanding among them is Katarzyna Chodurek as Carrie – a ludicrously self-obsessed actress – who has decided to spend Christmas with the parents of her high-flying partner Matthew. The only other guests are Matthew’s less successful brother, Adam, and – in a fabulous performance by Hattie Hahn – Sheena, Adam’s wasp chewing bulldog of a wife. As the brothers, bound by a near-terminal case of sibling rivalry, Adam Hampton-Matthews and Dickon Farmar set sparks flying from the off. Presiding imperiously over the annual get-together is their obsessively organised mother, played by Rosanna Preston in a performance that switches like a pendulum from manic to stoic and back again. Completing the main cast is Tom Tillery as Edith’s husband Francis, a former judge who has lost the use of his legs and feet but proves to be more than capable of using his hands.

The set is excellent and the technical team do a very good job. However, there is some scope to tighten the production. As well as a temporally confusing bit of set dressing in the interval and an overlong penultimate blackout, there are some issues with blocking. The audience is on three sides and not enough attention has been given to sight lines – this is a particular problem for Hahn who is left facing upstage for far too long at times, denying all but a few members of the audience the joy of her wonderfully expressive reactions.

On stage, the spectacle of a family’s descent into chaos is sometimes as unbearable as it is in real life, but here Holcroft’s ingenious conceit, Chapman’s tight direction and the uniformly strong performances – not to mention what must be the hardest working stage management team in amateur theatre – make for a very entertaining evening, as one would expect from one of London’s finest amateur companies.

4 stars

Review by Louis Mazzini

What happens when an extended family gathers in the kitchen for a traditional Christmas? As established mechanisms for survival are laid bare, even Mum, who’s been preparing this lunch since last January, becomes embroiled. Long-held rivalries and resentments will out. Accusations fly, relationships deconstruct.
Our production of Rules For Living is set in our own neighbourhood of Stoke Newington. It’s a seasonal family tale of disharmony, ruined expectations, overindulgence, a manic board game called “Bedlam!” and some of life’s little coping mechanisms. Let the festivities commence!

Rules for Living
by Sam Holcroft
Directed by John Chapman
Wednesday 27th November to Saturday 7th December 2019

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