In most respects, British writer Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living is a straightforward Christmas Lunch from Hell domestic comedy. But there’s a twist.
Rather than allow each character’s comic mainspring to reveal itself in speech and action, Holcroft puts it all on a billboard – or in this case, on a series of screens mounted about the set.
One rule requires that whenever young lawyer Matthew (played here by Keegan Joyce) tells a lie – which is often – he must sit down. Another rule insists that whenever Matthew’s brother Adam (Hazem Shammas) speaks the truth, he must do so in a silly voice.
Similar rules demand their mother Edith (Sonia Todd) must clean things in order to stay calm and that Matthew’s actor girlfriend Carrie (Nikita Waldron) has to dance until someone laughs at her.
As the scenario unfolds, the rules for each character evolve (Matthew has to sit down and eat; Edith must self-medicate as well as clean house) and comic chaos flows as Holcroft’s off-the-peg suite of sibling rivalries, personal disappointments and secret relationships play out.
Funny? Sure, for about 20 minutes. After that, the imposed rules reduce the characters to an ensemble of puppets. I found myself wishing at least some of them would come together and find a way to rebel against the unseen hand. But they don’t until late in the piece and only then in the most farcically obvious way.
This Sydney Theatre Company production looks very chic on the Drama Theatre stage with Charles Davis’s design blending elements of high-end domesticity with Millionaire-style TV game show.
Director Susanna Dowling marshals the action elegantly enough, though at this stage in the production’s development, there’s a slight fuzziness to what should be sharp edges. The play’s farcical climax – in which the rules of civilisation are briefly suspended – pales in comparison to the very similar yet much more satisfying one generated by the cast of Nakkiah Lui’s not dissimilar (though more politically active) Black is the New White a couple of years ago.
The cast give it their all in a piece that doesn’t let up much during its two-hours of stage time.
Amber McMahon excels as Nicole, Adam’s unhappy wife. Shammas is an energetic presence as the failed cricket player Adam. Waldron is unceasingly effervescent as Carrie. Bruce Spence makes much of the comparatively stationary role of Francis, the family patriarch Holcroft injects into the play before interval. Ella Jacob nails the role of Nicole’s teenaged daughter, whose late appearance shines a hard light on the neurotic antics of her family.
Granted, a Covid-safe 50 per cent audience robs the production of the critical mass of mirthful appreciation that stage comedy thrives on but even in front of a full house, I doubt Rules for Living could be seen as anything more than a mild, Christmas-themed distraction.