Rules for Living at the Dorfman
Rules for Living takes place in a middle-class household on Christmas Day, with a cast of characters that are universally recognisable. The overbearing matriarch of the family, played to perfection by Deborah Findley, has all the mannerisms of an unhinged housewife, straining to keep the traditional day together for the arrival of her infirm husband from hospital. All the while, her two sons are forced to face the underlying problems in their doomed relationships with their partners, their parents and each other.
Initially, the characters avoid facing facts at all costs but this unnatural repression becomes too intense and culminates in small shows of irritation. This is cleverly illustrated with a score board on set, which lists the foibles of each person and their respective way of dealing with stress. For example, Stephen Mangan’s character puts on a sardonic voice when threatened but is validated once blame is deflected; eco mother Sheena, played by Claudie Blakley, has to drink and talk over people to contradict their point of view, stopping only when she’s had the last word. The point scoring and power plays continue throughout and, as the stress levels increase, the points are marked on the score board. The “winner” succeeds in alienating everyone they love.
After a tense first half, the father of the household arrives, wheelchair-bound and unintelligible. Once a domineering force in the family’s life, John Rogan’s character is now a phantom that looms large over proceedings as his expectations of family, work and happiness are poetically subverted.
Phillip Larkin’s This Be the Verse springs to mind, but where demonising the parents would have been easy and predictable, the play’s strength lies in the immoral quagmire that has enveloped the whole family.
This play beautifully captures the tension that runs through the different generations of the family and does so with pathos, a sign of refined comedy that will only get better with age. Rules for Living is brilliantly anarchic, but underneath the farce lies a subtle and important treatise on the perils of mental stability when succumbing to the high expectations of others.
Rules for Living is on at Dorfman Theatre until 8th July 2015, for further information or to book visit here.