By Rosie Niven
It’s a setting we’ve all seen before, whether on the stage or in real life: a family Christmas, begrudgingly attended, forces together a mix of personalities and takes us from the ‘silly season’ to something downright chaotic. There’s something about the whole family getting together during the holidays that seems to be a recipe for disaster.
If you haven’t experienced it firsthand (lucky for you), you’ve likely seen this classic trope depicted on the stage. It’s a classic plot that gets rehashed at Christmas time to unite us over the universal experience of family. This year at Sydney Theatre Company though, they’ve taken the standard narrative and turned it on its head with British playwright Sam Holcroft’s 2015 play Rules for Living. But was this narrative shift enough to excite the audiences coming back after 8 months of no theatre, thirsty for a great story?
It’s Christmas Day at Edith’s (Sonia Todd) house, and the family have gathered together to welcome home the patriarch Francis (Bruce Spence), who has been released from hospital after a mysterious heart attack. Kept under a strict schedule from Edith that allocates everything from decorating to drink breaks, the house must be absolutely perfect for Francis’ return. As expected, a family Christmas brings about everything but a perfect day: sons Adam (Hazem Shammas) and Matthew (Keegan Joyce) are competing for the affections of Adam’s wife Nicole (Amber McMahon), their daughter Emma (Ella Jacob) won’t come downstairs because she’s riddled with anxiety, Matthew’s girlfriend Carrie (Nikita Waldron) keeps making everything worse with her no-filter approach to life, and Edith is self-medicating to get herself through a day that grows further and further from the perfection her husband would want.
To break away from the narrative as familiar as your stock-standard Christmas card, Holcroft attaches a set of rules for each character that the audience is privy to throughout the show. For example, Matthew must sit to tell a lie, and Adam must put on a silly voice to tell the truth. As tension builds and each character’s rules clash against one another, further rules are added, until Matthew must sit and eat to tell a lie until he gets a compliment, Adam must put on a silly voice and name-call to tell the truth until he deflects the blame, and so on. These rules are flashed above Charles Davis’ well-designed living room, giving the feel of a reality show we’re tuning into and breaking up the expected design of the Christmas play. These flashing colours and playful video clips elicit laughter from the audience as we watch characters battle for points to come out on top of the dreaded family lunch.
This is a fun trope that is well-executed by each of the performers, but the shortcoming of Rules for Living is that this trope is not strong enough to maintain a 2 hour show. After 15 minutes of the clashing rules and absurd behaviours, the laughter subsides and the performances start to feel strained. This is even more disappointing when you look at the talent pool that Sydney Theatre Company has compiled for their return to the theatre.
STC’s choice of play for their post-COVID return makes sense. Returning with a comedy is a great way to encourage people back to the theatre, and a simple and relatable narrative appeals to a wide audience. However, a simple narrative shouldn’t come at the detriment of entertainment, and in the case of Rules for Living, the excitement quickly runs dry. Except for the table in the final scene that was flipped incorrectly and was half a metre away from taking out the front row of the audience, the show fizzles out and leaves you wanting more. More than anything, you’re left wanting a laugh, especially with something described as ‘frenetically funny’.
Photo credit: Daniel Boud