In an episode of The Green Wing, Stephen Mangan’s character is forced to play a game: conduct an operation in a regional accent. He turns out to be beyond bad at doing voices and Mangan brings the same spectacular anti-talent to Sam Holcroft’s new play, Rules for Living, at the Dorfman in the National. The thing is, mimicry is his character’s calling card: when Adam wants to mock anything, he does it in a voice. When he gets particularly stressed and the stakes are raised, he does the voice and tosses in an insult. This is his rule for living, and everyone in Adam’s family has their own: his brother (played by Miles Jupp) is a liar who must eat to fuel his fib; mother (Deborah Findlay) must glug pills and compulsively clean when she feels under attack; while Adam’s wife (Claudia Blakley) must drink to assert herself, and continue to assert herself until she gets the last word.
Now they’re all back for Christmas. It’s not going to end well. In fact, it’s heading off to be a spectacular, trifle-throwing disaster.
The family get-together is is one of the most recognised and sturdy styles of drama. Martin Crimp’s play, In the Republic of Happiness, directed by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court also began with a traditional holiday meal before spiralling off into wildly unexpected, earth-shattering directions. Holcroft also recognises the form needs something spectacular to give it lift off, and so we have the rules – flashed up on scoreboards above the basketball-like arena where the play is staged.
Adam’s voices might be bad, but that only underlines the venom. He and his family rely on these defensive-attacking strategies to avoid pain or deflect criticism. I bumped into a friend in the theatre, who said she defied anyone not to identify with at least one of the characters. There is a lot of fun to be had, knowing the key to the characters, and anticipating the problems they might face (will Jupp get to the food in time to lie? will Blakley get to the wine?). This is a very funny play. Yet to see the tics as strategies implies a privileged perspective from which everything can be decoded, everything seen and resolved. If we believe there isn’t, then the play may feel smaller, because the rules are there only to amp up the fun and mayhem.