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Rules for Living

Stephen Mangan, John Rogan, Miles Jupp and Deborah Findlay in Rules For Living at the Dorfman, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Stephen Mangan, John Rogan, Miles Jupp and Deborah Findlay in Rules For Living at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

As a species, we’re pretty good at self-sabotage. Sam Holcroft’s new play, the final premiere in Nicholas Hytner’s last season as artistic director of the National Theatre, draws on some of the ideas behind cognitive behavioural therapy in its exploration of these negative patterns of behaviour.

But while some of the ideas behind the production are intriguing, the play feels rather like a sitcom in tone. This is despite the inventiveness of Marianne Elliott’s staging. Together with designer Chloe Lamford, she has placed a family kitchen into a kind of sports court with two large illuminated scoreboards at each end of the set. Each character has their own set of rules and gradually they accrue points.

The play takes place on Christmas Day and brothers, Adam (Stephen Mangan) and Matthew (Miles Jupp), a failed cricketer and a failed actor respectively – both now solicitors – are helping their mother prepare lunch while awaiting the return of their overbearing father from hospital.

For a good while the laughs feel signposted and the characters all rather one-note; it’s only when the rules of the game are more fully integrated into the comedy that things start to fly and the whole thing builds to a spectacularly chaotic and messy scene of family meltdown. There are some really solid comic performances here, from Mangan and Jupp and also from Claudie Blakley, as Adam’s weary wife, Sheena. But despite that late, delicious eruption of anarchy, there’s something rather laboured about the production as a whole – its tread is heavy.

Dates: March 13-July 8, PN March 24

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An inventively staged, if rather broad, family comedy