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Review: Rules for Living

The scene opens (quite literally, as the set moved apart to reveal a wider space) with a beautifully designed stage, somewhat resembling a doll’s house; the accompanying sense of childhood innocence befitted the farcical anarchy that was to come. In Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living, the characters test their resilience to the limits at the mother of all stressful situations - the family Christmas - and the tension between the family members escalates slowly until it reaches the utter pandemonium of a (exceptionally well directed) food fight.

The central theme of the play - the coping strategies that individuals use to get through day-to-day life and the process of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - were well explored, leaving plenty of food for thought amidst the wreckage of the family Christmas dinner. The general idea is that we all create rules for ourselves to help us deal with certain situations - Chandler in the American TV show Friends famously uses comedy and sarcasm to avoid situations where an emotional response is usually required, others may have a drink when they feel nervous or keep arguing until they are assured they have had the final word. These coping strategies can be largely unconscious, and many are not harmful, but in certain situations we may need to have a deeper look at our personal, constructed ‘rules for living’ and see if they are helping us achieve our goals, or are hindering us.

By twisting this theme with the card game ‘Bedlam’, where players increasing must introduce and uphold absurd rules (such as whistling before a certain number is played or only speaking in the third person), Rules for Living shows us just how limiting and ridiculous our own coping strategies can be - a theatrical demonstration of the reductio ad absurdum. Although perhaps a bit confusing to start, the play continued to escalate, gathering steam as it went, into a satisfyingly explosive ending.

Some characters were better developed than others - the name-calling references made by the character of Adam occasionally lacked the razor-sharp wit that the audience was looking for - however, the pressure-cooker of a family home full to the brim of several startlingly different (and largely incompatible) personalities was instantly relatable from the beginning, and the thread of tension between the characters successfully remained taut throughout the production. The audience were given the chance to warm to each of the characters in turn, identifying with their personal struggles, emotions, and methods of coping.

Despite the somewhat serious theme of the play, it flourished as a comedy - highlights included the few (but exceptionally well-timed) cackles by Paul Shelley (playing Francis), the obsessive cleaning and ‘old-dear’ moments by Jane Booker (playing Edith) and, of course, the absolute pandemonium of the food fight which was, perhaps ironically, executed with military precision by all involved.

 • Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft, directed by Simon Godwin, is showing at The Rose Theatre until Saturday 11 November. To book tickets phone 020 8174 0090 or see

Rules for Living