Adelaide Repertory Theatre
The Arts Theatre
Until 08 Sep 2018

Review by John Wells

Aaaahhh, Christmas: is there any better time for familial tensions, simmering rivalries, and unspoken desires to emerge, joyful and triumphant? Open a bottle of red, grab a gluten-free mince pie and get stuck in!

Matthew, a compliant Mummy’s boy, is visiting his parents with Carrie, his new girlfriend, a buxom and outspoken actress. Waiting at the family home are Matthew’s under-achieving and bitter older brother Adam, and Adam’s fragile wife Sheena. This quartet oscillates around the bombastic, controlling matriarch Edith, who runs yuletide with a military precision.

We are in classic middle-class melodrama territory here, but playwright Sam Holcroft gives this predictable scenario an ingenious structural and narrative twist: each character has an inflexible behavioural tic they are psychologically bound to obey. These are the rules for living, and they flash up on a screen above the action. Matthew, for example, must sit down to lie; Edith calms herself down by cleaning; Adam uses a silly accent when he is mocking someone. Holcroft observes that we all have our internal patterns which dictate our behaviour, especially at times of stress. It’s Alan Ayckbourn with psychobabble.

This pattern of the audience having a psychological insight into the characters when the characters themselves are unaware works wonderfully well in the first act. Director Megan Dansie sets the tone adroitly: the comedy is light, the relationships develop nicely, the gags flow freely, and the blocking wrings the laughter with ease. But Holcroft’s cleverness works against the action of the play. As the narrative progresses, the rules become constrictive and inhibit the action. The sharpness of the conceit loses its precision and becomes increasingly ineffective. As the rules become more complex, the characters cannot escape the complications the rules create. While this is an astute psychological observation – and a comment on cognitive behavioural therapy – the stagecraft suffers. Holcroft’s writing is patchy. There are some beautiful moments of comedy and pathos, but also frequent dull patches where the comedy is simply not funny enough and where the high emotional pitch hovers close to cliché.

Dansie has cast a talented ensemble which, along with her confident direction, makes the most of the uneven script. Chris Eaton (Matthew) is tense, awkward and despairing. He conveys a palpable sense of disappointed longing for something better. Jaye Gordon (Sheena) is sinewy, ultra-wound and brittle. This is a strong and confident performance, full of heart and wounded intensity. Steve Marvanek (Adam) has a caustic bluster, hiding a deep insecurity. Marvanek is saddled with some unwieldy lines and has to spit out invective in all manner of accents. He carries this off creditably. This trio finds real emotional truth, and conveys the desperate bleakness of middle-age with genuine feeling. Penni Hamilton-Smith (Edith) is a delicious combination of doddery and manipulative, with a perfect Burnside accent and matronly hauteur.

The final stanza of the play moves into all-out farce, with a delightfully unhinged breakdown – food is flung around, relationships are butchered and the rules are abandoned.

“Rules for Living” is a relatively new play: it premiered in London (for the National, no less) in 2015, and toured the UK last year. This is a South Australian premiere. The Rep should be commended for programming new work for local audiences. Long may it continue.

Chris Eaton is the Review Co-ordinator for the Adelaide Theatre Guide.