Theatre review: Rules for Living

Stephen Mangan is on good form in this knowing domestic comedy

National Theatre | ★★★★☆

So this is it: the final curtain for Sir Nicholas Hytner, the revitalising creative director of the National Theatre. That he would bow out with Rules for Living, a new play from young writer Sam Holcroft and directed by stalwart Marianne Elliot, exemplifies the combination of steady-handedness and risk he has brought to his tenure.
Rules for Living is at first glance a rather conventional family comedy in the Alan Ayckbourn mode. Two brothers return to the family home for Christmas with their partners in tow. Over lunch, long-standing tensions flare to a fever pitch. So far, so Season’s Greetings.
Holcroft’s new spin on the formula is to turn the drama into a game. Two giant scoreboards above the stage stipulate each character’s personal rules. Matthew (Miles Jupp) must sit to lie; his girlfriend Carrie (Maggie Service) has to stand to a tell a joke. As time goes on, these rules become more complicated, until in the second half they turn into a point-scoring sport.
This has great comic effect, as we come to identity and preempt each individual’s strategies. It manages to turn the play’s formulaic nature into a self-conscious source of humour.
It is less successful as a reflection on behavioural therapy, which is repeatedly raised but never fully explored. While there are moments both thoughtful and wrenching, Rules for Living works best when it sticks to laughs.
As the brothers, Jupp and Stephen Mangan may be playing to type, but do so fantastically. However, it’s Deborah Findley who dominates the show, ably channeling both Margaret Thatcher and Hyacinth Bucket as the repressed, perfectionist matriarch Edith.
Chloe Lamford’s design is excellent; the production begins before the action starts, as the audience notice that the conventional domestic setting is bedecked with the both the markings of a basketball court and a Monopoly board. When everything erupts into a messy flinging match – beware, front rows – Kate Waters’ choreography grants everything an uninhibited mania.
It may fail to leave a deeper mark, but Rules for Living is sharp, riotous piece of theatre, a worthy National debut for Holcroft and a suitable swansong for Hytner.

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