[Review:] RULES FOR LIVING, Tower Theatre Company, London.
I will start by saying that I have mixed views on this performance, primarily because the first half, before the interval, is so enjoyable, and yet the second is utterly shambolic. Where characters and plot are concerned, this is a good performance, but the way these are communicated is fallible and irksome. Momentum is compromised by relentless repetition, and, despite the actors’ unfaltering energies, climax and intrigue decline drastically as the play goes on. All positives that I write later in this review will hence pertain to this first half.
I shall start with the one obvious thing that differentiates this play from many others: the use of rules. This definitely provides the play with a unique tone, permitting the audience to understand any subtext quickly and without shattering too steadfastly the theatrical and self-contained quality of the performance. Yet, my issue with these is not so much the idea of such an additional tone but with how this tone complements or aligns with the performance. From very early on in the play, there is a theme of regulation, of order and procedure, communicated both through the theme of a family Christmas gathering but most emphatically through allusions to how Edith (Rosanna Preston) runs Christmas as though a “military camp”. Though very loosely, this does contextualise the use of rules. Beyond this, there is very little to continue to do so.
The major problem I have with the use of rules here is in my imagining of the play without them…it would be exactly the same. These rules are more vigorous character traits than restrictions/orders/regulations. They do not add complications to the narrative or to the world of the play, nor do they challenge the way characters interact with each other or the way we understand the characters and their intentions/emotions. Normally, rules are used in performance to guide actors through a performance, to command certain acts or behaviours out of them. In other words, they are the very text of the performance itself. With Rules for Living, however, they feel as though a simple [omittable] overlay which should remain in the conceptualisation stage as but a guide into plot-making and character creations for writer Sam Holcroft. These would lay the groundwork for the text, disguised within it, and forming –– not supplementing –– the material. As mentioned before, the only benefit of having these rules is that they slightly further our understanding of subtext, but this, unfortunately, remains rather limited to Matthew’s character (Adam Hampton Matthews) and the rule that he must sit down [and, later, also eat] in order to lie. Yet, is this not something we could work out without the rules? It seems a bit extreme to communicate something that would be otherwise comprehensible, in this very specific way.
There is also no sense of risk, of what might happen if these rules were to be broken, and this remains evident until the very end of the play when the characters oppose the behaviours that have been enforced upon them. In fact, I cannot particularly fathom what we are meant to achieve from this ending. I feel that there is a subtextual meaning to this only clear to its creators, not in any way clarified for spectators.
Similar to this is the 'Anarchy Rules' sequence with which I have many issues, but before I move on to this, I would just like to mention two more final issues I have. In terms of presentation, whilst the layout of the rules is slick and clear, the fifth and final rule pertaining to Edith’s character omits a colon and makes no use of colour like the others. This makes for a slight disjointedness in the visual. Then, there is the siren-like sound which occurs alongside the appearance of the rules. This needs to be constant, being that we naturally start to rely on the sound as a signal to the modification of an existing rule or the addition of a new one. Without the sounds, it is simply too easy to miss these amongst the overbearing action on stage. The extra texture and personality they bring to the performance suffer too. As pedantic as all of this seems, it is concerns like these that separate articulate and cogent performances from their opposites.
Now, on to this 'Anarchy Rules' sequence. Tensions between the family have been building for some time, and when they reach their maximum, the sequence begins. Images of the maddened characters taking their rules to the extreme, running riot and going crazy, appear on the screen, and, on stage, all hell breaks loose…for perhaps the fifth time. The screen consistently presents a version of the characters which we are not presented on stage, a sort of avatar profile, as if the characters are in a game or a structured altered reality. Why this is exactly is not clear, and this is obviously a problem. That which is presented on stage, however, is quite frankly incredibly tiresome…
It is clear very early on in the performance that direction (John Chapman) has been given and taken very well. During the first outburst, all actors have something to do, and there is a veritable variety of things to spectate. This is most commendable, as it is difficult to capture and sustain such vitality and energy in turbulent scenes like this. However, such outbursts, though admittedly not as explosive, occur again and again [and again] in this performance, and as their frequency increases, this spectacularity declines. Energy levels become extremely low, and these outbursts start to find themselves composed of very little. In their sheer abundance, they start to become wildly anti-climactic, as though the text is indefatigably milking every joke it has till the very last droplet. This can be said of many elements to the performance, most notably Matthew’s incessant lying and Carrie’s (Kasia Chodurek) dancing, or, which I shall elaborate on later, exposures of Sheena (Hattie Hahn) and Adam (Dickon Farmar)’s dysfunctional relationship. There is a lot of material that repeats itself, some of which is not especially impactful to begin with, and this makes for a dilute text, referencing that famous saying, less is sometimes more.
With this specific sequence, there is not a sufficient amount of information as to what this so-called anarchy signifies. Again, it feels as though a game, but one on which the audience are not made knowledgeable, that a level has been reached and that we are expected to know what this means. Once more, the use of rules becomes obsolete, and we arrive at a point which we could have certainly reached without them. There is no need for an announcement of the anarchy, and the fact that this is deemed necessary signals for me that there is another objective that this performance is attempting to reach but is failing to.
A similar thing occurs before this sequence when the rules become 'Live'. The characters seem to be gaining points as the word 'Live', appearing next to their names/rules, is accompanied by a number corresponding to the number of times these rules have been followed. What purpose these scores serve, or what the ambiguous and grammatically questionable 'Live 2' actually means, is again emphatically unclear. I imagine that, given the title, Live symbolises something far greater in the eyes of the play’s creators. Rules also remain Live for ages on end, and yet the characters are dotted around the stage, inactive and silent, failing to follow them. This fact is most true of Sheena’s character.
By the time of this final outburst, I personally had lost all interest in the so-called drama of it all. Instead, I found myself rather sad in the consideration of all of the food and drink that this performance must waste on a nightly basis and with such little effect. On that matter, I would emphatically recommend more control in these scenes. However chaotic the action must seem, this should be organised chaos from the actors’ position, and pieces of chicken flying directly into the audience is not particularly organised. Furthermore, having such pieces landing on a spectator is not necessarily a spectator’s idea of a nice evening out at the theatre.
On to the acting. Whilst I would have liked to see, where appropriate, more realism from the cast, from all actors besides Preston who remained cogent and convincing as well as capable in her comedy, all actors were true to the exaggerative and particularised language of the text. It is clear that they each understand their characters and their intentions and emotions. As I mentioned before, early on in the performance, each actor has clear activities: Sheena setting the table, Carrie making towers out of chopped carrots, Edith cleaning, etc. There is always something to watch. Towards the end, however, actors are just sat down around the stage, often motionless, waiting for their next cue. If there is really nothing to do in these scenes, and if these do not progress the play or its plot in any way whatsoever, then they should be cut entirely.
Speech does seem irregular at times, which is both due to the unnatural patterns in the writing as well as the acting. I do think the text could benefit from some more realism in this respect. There are also little traits that the actors perform frequently which cause friction in the reading of their characters, a prime example of this being that Matthews regularly looks out to the audience after delivering a comical line, almost as though he is delivering it to them in a self-referential sitcom. This breaks illusion and should be avoided. That being said, these actors were certainly hilarious and, for the most part, had comedic timing, something which only suffered due to the lack of timeliness in the chaos of the outbursts.
On to the writing –– rules aside, as I think I have elucidated well my opinions on those. Gags and jokes were very successful in this performance. Holfcroft has a very good understanding of comedy and a cogent writing style. However, the writing struggles to find a balance between comical features that add endearment and tone to the text, and crucial features that progress the plot. The actual plot of this play can really be summarised in forty-five minutes’ worth of text, yet all of the action manages to stretch over two hours. There is simply not enough material to make this a sufficiently complex and intricate text for such a duration, and this is evidenced by the text’s speedy resort to underhand and unthoughtful themes.
When dealing with particularly sensitive issues, whether pertaining to race or culture, gender or sexuality, mental illness or disability, physical or verbal abuse or any other sensitive issue, dramatic and performance artists retain a particular duty to their public to represent these issues with appropriacy, intellect and consideration. As such, we express, of course, our own social realities, and we must do so with subjectivity and purpose, not with an objective, ignorant gaze which appropriates the suffering of people for humour — or, more ultimately, for commercial gain or notoriety. There is a time and a place for dark comedy, and this should not be used haphazardly or in spite of stylistic incongruity.
Performing disability, just for comedic purposes, is inappropriate in this way. For this reason, I find the character of Francis (Tom Tillery) to be insensitive. This character is later used as a site for further [needless] inappropriate themes, most notably sexual abuse when he is revealed as a serial groper. This is not in keeping at all with the rest of the humour in this performance. The main problem here is that Francis has little to no personality. He is reduced to physical inability, to a caricature of illness, and hence lacks identity and personality. This is why, in comedy theory, it is so ‘funny’ to discover that he is a serial sexual abuser, for our expectations are subverted. These jokes are used in passing and are naturalised within the dramatic text, and this is most abhorrent.
Themes of sex or themes which disparage minorities or the abject are those which amateur comedians resort to when they have run out of or cannot produce any material, and this is what has clearly happened towards the middle-end of this performance.
Other darker themes are used throughout the performance as part of its material, such as Edith’s OCD and resorting to self-medication or Sheena and Adam’s abusive relationship, yet these characters are represented as people with personalities, motives and intents. However caricaturistic, the fact that they have depth to them means that the effects of this humour become less insolent as with Francis and more satirical. However, that is not to say that I found Sheena and Adam’s interactions particularly enjoyable. I think that Adam’s attempts to coerce Sheena to drink retain too much severity, not only in their consistent recurrence in the text but in the way they are portrayed by Farmar. I fail to understand why Adam is attempting to do this in the first place, and so forcefully and persistently. The idea and its execution just seem unpolished and rudimentary.
All of this negativity aside, this play is undeniably very comical. Holcroft has successfully engineered a fruitful collection of characters, each with their own redeeming qualities. How these characters’ personality traits cause for frictions between them is most entertaining and well-conceived. Characters are ridiculous and silly, and I mean this in the most positive way.
Actors have a remarkable chemistry with one another, and jokes are well articulated and land appropriately. Their energies are definitely commendable and unfaltering, and I will say that this can be said of the second half too; it is the content I find irritating, rather than the way it is expressed. As said before, actors remain true to the language and tone of the text; they are sure of their roles and functions in this way. I would just note that when characterisations become more extreme (dancing wildly, highly intoxicated, raging mad, etc.), these could be much more slick and refined. Actually going mad, without controlled or articulate physicality, is not particularly desirable.
The set for this performance is very elaborate and detailed. It is very strong in both its usability and aesthetic intricacy. Complete with cupboards, chairs, fridges, a window and even a dishwasher, this set makes for a great and realistic sense of habitability, allowing for a dynamic range of interactivity with actors. I would just recommend that actors refrain from standing too close to the perimeters of the stage, as this blocks the view of spectators in the front row.
Beyond the screen at the back of the stage, tech is used rather sparingly in this performance, and I think this is sensible. When blackouts are finally used, for comedic effect, they are timely and well placed. Music, only utilised during the overture, is pertinent to the mood of the performance, and this is most agreeable.
“An enjoyable and comical performance but one whose content turns monotonous, overplayed and lacklustre.”
Photography Credit: David Sprecher.