Review – Rules For Living, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2017

Rules for LivingThe curtain rises and straight away you recognise that comfortable setting; Christmas Day, the living room and the kitchen, a half-decorated tree, and two young people perched expectantly on the sofa. Is it going to turn into Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings by another name? With surprise artificiality, a device projects the words “Rules for Living” on the roof of the house, as if we’d already forgotten the name of the play. Then another surprise; before anyone says anything, the set divides; the living room heads off stage left, the kitchen swerves stage right, leaving a big empty void in the centre of the stage. It already feels like technology is taking over this everyday suburban Christmas scenario.

RFL1Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living first appeared at the National Theatre’s Dorfman a couple of years ago, where it got something of a mixed reception: ambitious and funny, but peculiarly stressful seemed to be the gist, and I entirely understand where that’s coming from. In a nutshell, Matriarch Edith is trying to create the perfect Christmas Day lunch (always a disastrous idea) to welcome back her husband Francis from hospital, who’s been suffering with some undisclosed ailment. Sons Matthew and Adam will be in attendance; Matthew with Carrie, the girlfriend he’s been going out with one year, Adam with his wife Nicole and their teenage daughter Emma, who suffers with depression. As you might expect, the relationships between the sons, their other halves and their mother get progressively strained as the day wears on. Francis comes home, more severely afflicted than Edith had let on, and the day degenerates even further.

RFL2But there’s a twist: and it goes back to that artificiality/technology influence felt in the opening moments. Each of the characters (apart from Francis and Emma) has an individual behavioural trait that they use to cope with stressful situations. Matthew, for example, has to sit down in order to tell a lie. We know this, because it’s projected on the walls and roof. So when Carrie asks Matthew if his mother likes her, and he sits down to say yes, we know he’s lying; you get the picture. Nicole must take a drink in order to contradict. As you can imagine, during a typical lively Christmas Day, quite a lot of contradicting takes place so Nicole gets somewhat boozed up to satisfy this particular behavioural need. And so it goes on. There’s an enormous amount of genuine hilarity to be enjoyed recognising how each character meets their psychological responses.

RFL3Sam Holcroft was partly inspired to write the play as a response to her own experiences of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Emma is undergoing CBT, and it makes her question her own response to the various challenges she faces. Nicole would like Adam to accompany her on some therapy sessions but he’s not remotely convinced. Of course, all the behavioural idiosyncracies that the characters display are ripe raw ingredients for a CBT session. The stress of learning a new card game is another new challenge for Christmas Day; Bedlam – that’s the game – where the rules include your requiring to identify others’ behavioural responses, which the characters attempt to do, whilst still having to obey their own. The furore this causes strongly reminded me of Reg’s wretched board game in The Norman Conquests. No wonder Christmas is stressful.

RFL5It’s a really clever construct; but I always felt aware of a greater being influencing the activities of the characters. The unseen writer truly plays the role of the puppet-master, creating a series of individual havocs that her characters must endure, almost at her random will. I guess that’s the case for any writer creating a story – their characters have to comply with the events that the writer chucks in their path. But the artificiality of it all is really emphasised with this play and production. It’s a most unusual experience. A small part of me wondered if it was an easy cop-out; should we be able to see, through the nuances of the writing, how the characters need to follow certain behavioural paths without having their rules of living flashed up so obviously on a colour-co-ordinated screen? Doing it this way certainly means that the rules are in charge, not the people. The characters even stop what they’re doing every time the rules change, then resume their path to their fate, like flies to wanton boys.

RFL4The cast absolutely pull out all the stops to mine as much humour from the situation as possible, and there are some beautiful moments of physical comedy, classic farce, and an outrageous food fight to enjoy. Jane Booker’s Edith is a superb portrayal of a control freak who needs her own versions of a “little helper” when she’s thwarted. Carlyss Peer turns into more and more of a musical theatre travesty as she shows Carrie’s way of coping with anxieties and rejection. Ed Hughes’ Adam turns from nice guy into sarcastic sod in order to protect himself from his own self-loathing, Jolyon Coy’s Matthew is up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers reflecting his permanent state of mendacity, and Laura Rogers’ Nicole’s tongue gets loosened by alcohol the more belligerent she gets. It’s almost as though Derren Brown has had a session with them before they went on stage so that they react to individual trigger points. There’s a nice irony in the fact that the physically suffering Francis, a delightful performance by Paul Shelley using only a few words but wicked facial expressions, is the only character who mentally knows precisely what he wants and has no compunction about getting it.

RFL6It’s extremely funny and very thought-provoking; despite its Ayckbournian setting it’s a highly original look at a familiar domestic disaster zone. Abbreviate Rules For Living, add an “o”, and you get RoFL, which rather sums it up. And spare a thought for the stage management team who have to clear that mess up after every performance. If you’re wearing nice clothes, I wouldn’t sit anywhere nearer the stage than the third row! This is a co-production between the Royal and Derngate, English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and after its few weeks in Northampton, it tours to Cambridge, Windsor, Brighton, Ipswich and Kingston. You have to see this one!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – Democracy, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 17th March 2012

Michael Frayn Season Mrs Chrisparkle and I love our occasional jaunts up to Sheffield, not least because the Crucible Theatre offers such a flexible space for meaty drama. This year their Michael Frayn season featured three plays, all of which were new to both of us. Alas, we couldn’t fit in seeing Copenhagen, but we made up for it by seeing both Democracy and Benefactors on the same day.

DemocracyWest German Chancellor Willy Brandt had an eye for the ladies and was supreme at simple evocative gestures on public appearances that made him a natural political leader. Unfortunately he and his team were not as adept at identifying and weeding out spies in their midst. Günther Guillaume was an East German spy who infiltrated the West German government and indeed worked closely alongside Brandt whilst copying virtually every internal document and sending it back to his East German spymaster Kretschmann via his wife Christel, in order to please the (never seen) big boss Mischa.

Patrick DruryVisually, this production offers a very simple presentation, with basic furniture and props, and excellent attention to detail in the business suit costume department. Director Paul Miller uses the big Crucible stage as a blank canvas for the interactions between the Chancellor and Ministers and the spy, with small corners at the edges of the stage depicting Brandt’s office, Guillaume’s office, the cabinet room and Kretschmann’s office. All the time that Guillaume is talking to the ministers he is also talking to Kretschmann, plainly demonstrating the very stark reality of the act of espionage – its ease and naturalness, and the way in which in fact it appears remarkably unsecretive. It’s a very effective way of showing Guillaume’s two-timing nature. Whenever a new minister is introduced, Guillaume reports the fact back to Kretschmann, who flings out another secret dossier on his office floor. The infiltration is all so obvious to us; which gives the dramatic intensity to the fact that Brandt’s team can’t see it.

Aidan McArdleEventually the bumbling security department begin to twig, and to decide how to cope with the knowledge of the spy in the midst. There’s a wonderful scene between Brandt and Guillaume in the Norwegian countryside, where Brandt, now deeply suspicious that Guillaume is a spy, tells him about his youthful days, and how he too worked undercover – but without quite accusing, just letting suggestions hang in the air for Guillaume to deflect as best he can. Not long after that Guillaume is arrested and under the glare of a blinding white light he is captured and immediately confesses. In the future, East Germany, along with the rest of the Iron Curtain states, is no more; and the play questions the point of sacrificing oneself and ones family for the State. It’s a very well written and thought-provoking play.

Richard HopeIt’s also extremely well performed. Patrick Drury as Brandt has a quiet arrogance that becomes noble when impressing a crowd but can make for a tough cookie when he is dealing with colleagues. When things go wrong he acquires a weakness that is virtually tangible. Telling Guillaume of his enigmatic past in Norway he becomes curiously manipulative. Like Walt Whitman, he is large; he contains multitudes. It’s all completely believable.

William HoylandAs Guillaume, Aidan McArdle hits exactly the right note of slightly weaselly subservience with Brandt, but with clarity and confidence in his dealings with Kretschmann. As he gets further in to his deception, he finds he has a loyalty to both his masters and the only way to satisfy this loyalty is to sacrifice himself. With slightly maniacal hair and a vaguely shabbier suit than his colleagues he is subtly presented as being from a different world from the rest of them; his East German roots inspiring snobbery from the other ministers, apart from his gullible champion Ehmke, a wonderfully positive and open performance from Richard Hope. Mr Hope even accepts Brandt’s turning his back on him and his demotion to being in charge of the Post Office with a charming innocent brightness.

David MallinsonOther excellent performances come from William Hoyland as irascible pipe-smoking party leader Herbert Wehner, delightfully scheming and pompous; David Mallinson as Helmut Schmidt, every inch a politician; and Ed Hughes as East German Kretschmann, his leather jacket and casual appearance adding to his visible foreignness, at times frustrated by and jealous of Guillaume’s hands-on honour of performing this noble espionage for the Good of the East German State.

Ed HughesThe performance we saw was captioned by Stagetext. I’ve not seen this before – basically, on a screen either side of the stage, the script scrolls up so you can read what the cast are saying. I found myself reading it more than I would have expected. As someone who occasionally can find it a little difficult to catch everything that gets spoken on stage I can definitely see how it could help one’s theatregoing experience. It also reveals when the cast make minor slip ups with the words though – and that happened a lot more than I would have predicted!

I’d definitely recommend this production of this stimulating play, well performed and directed, which will certainly have you thinking and analysing on the way home.