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Review: Rules for Living, National Theatre


Human behaviour and our everyday little survival techniques come under scrutiny in Sam Holcroft's new play Rules for Living at the National's Dorfman theatre. 

The stage has been repositioned into the middle of the space with the audience on four sides, almost like a crowd watching a basketball game. It is appropriate for this family Christmas drama/comedy in which the characters behavioural tics are translated into rules on which they are scored via two huge score boards.

As a family Christmas drama it is fairly standard fare: Expectations are high for a 'just so' lunch. There is an overbearing and judgemental mother, a son with a marriage on the rocks and a problem teenager and a second son with a new girlfriend who doesn't quite fit in.

The pressure of the day mounts and past problems and hurts start to re-emerge until tempers become frayed and explosive.

Extra comedy is gleaned from the game element as you look out for and spot the behaviour for which the characters are being scored - the mother who has to clean to keep herself calm, for example. It becomes farcical but while it is over the top there will be elements of the family's behaviour that everyone can recognise.

It does take a while for the game element to become part of the flow and while this is a clever spin on this genre it does begin to lose its value after a while.

There are some very funny moments but at times it feels laboured. There is a card game scene that outstays its welcome, for example. The aftermath of the final explosive episode is nicely handled and the direction is superb but Rules for Living just doesn't quite feel like play that should be two hours and thirty five minutes long (with an interval).

It's enjoyable enough and there is already a category in the StOlivier awards being devised for that scene but otherwise this good rather than great.

Rules for Living is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until July 8.


Claudie Blakley who plays daughter-in-law Sheena was in Bright Star with Mr W.