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Rules for Living review at Royal and Derngate, Northampton – ‘anarchically effective’

The cast of Rules for Living at Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Mark Douet The cast of Rules for Living at Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Mark Douet
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The dynamic trio of Royal and Derngate, English Touring Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston reunite after last year’s The Herbal Bed, to stage the first revival of Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living, which debuted at the National in 2015.

Keen-to-impress actress Carrie accompanies her fussy barrister boyfriend Matthew home for Christmas. Already there are Matthew’s feckless brother, Adam, his strung-out wife, Nicole, and Edith, the house-proud matriarch.

Holcroft’s play mines for comic-tragic effect the psychological theory that people reinforce negative behaviour traits each time they fall back on them as coping strategies (“rules for living”) at stressful times.

The play adeptly lays out a comically familiar festive landscape of petty rivalries. The cast handles this well, from Jane Booker’s neurotically anxious dusting as Edith, to Ed Hughes’s thin-skinned Adam, lashing out in a dozen silly accents.

The original production flashed each character trait on a scoreboard at either end of a traverse set marked like an indoor sports pitch. Simon Godwin’s more practical, tour-ready staging is a house interior with video projections.

Godwin’s generally more grounded approach lends the play’s ending greater emotional weight. But it also further foregrounds how – beneath the conceit – this is a fairly standard domestic comedy, complete with a hint of adultery, a sick child and a domineering father.

It isn’t until the escalating farce of the second act — as what each character is compelled to do to “stay on top” becomes hilariously extreme — that this production truly bursts out of its box. As the food flies, it’s anarchically effective.

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Revival of Sam Holcroft’s festively funny play that hits its stride after the interval