Using, of all things, Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy as a very literal framework, Sam Holcroft’s new play for the National Theatre makes for a riotous evening. A family’s foibles are revealed to us in the form of their coping strategies, or ‘rules for living’, to use the therapists’ term, on a game show-style screen – all part of Chloe Lamford’s witty set. So we know, for example, that one character sits down when they lie and another stands up to tell a joke. Every move realises its comic potential.
Holcroft’s strategy is a neat gimmick that’s so effective that the actors have half the work done for them. Nonetheless the cast is superb. Stephen Mangan and Miles Jupp are brilliant as brothers who reveal their competitive streak and long-held grudges. Claudie Blakley and Maggie Service play their partners, full of repression and insecurities, revealed, respectively, by booze and bad jokes. Best of all is Deborah Findlay as the mother who ‘cleans to keep calm’ – a performance that magically transcends her deliberately recognisable character to become comedy gold.
Rules For Living might be a touch too long in places, and the final act adds disappointingly little, but Marianne Elliott’s direction is impeccable and the jokes have a high hit rate. And underneath the original twist is an old-fashioned dysfunctional family comedy – it’s even set at Christmas – that works superbly. The show gets better the sillier the events and the characters become. The culminating luxury food fight alone means you get your ticket money’s worth. It’s not a play if you hate to see food wasted, but the whole thing is a great deal of fun.
Until 8 July 2015
Photo by Simon Annand