RULES FOR LIVING NT Dorfman, SE1

SITCOM DOESN’T QUITE STAND UP

First the good news. If there is an award for best-choreographed food-fight, it’s just been won (take a bow, fight director Kate Waters).  Stephen Mangan leaps on tables with the agility (and the hairdo) of Erroll Flynn, Miles Jupp looks terrific with gravy on his head, John Rogan delivers from a largely wordless wheelchair role some of the best reaction faces this year. Maggie Service has all the fearless absurdity which marks the rising generation of female stand-ups, and Deborah Findlay is, as ever, heroic in suggesting layers of painful character with little to work on.
But that’s it. Out of ten the cast score 8, the play about 3. Sam Holcroft’s blackish comedy of a dysfunctional family Christmas never makes the jump into reality, even with Marianne Elliott as director and a kitchen-diner set so huge and smart that it makes David Cameron’s look poky. The theme is built on an idea behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that people set themselves unachievable “rules” which make them unhappy. Offstage until the end is Emma, 14-year-old suffering from fatigue syndrome and what her fussed, unhappy mother Sheena (Claudie Blakley) calls “negative core beliefs”. She is deemed too poorly to come down to the family meal.
Her father Adam – failed cricketer turned junior solicitor – despises psychobabble and won’t go to couples counselling (Sheena is currently unhappy for the footling reason that he didn’t book a hotel for their anniversary). Brother Matthew is a more successful lawyer, who fancies Sheena but has brought a horribly extrovert actress girlfriend (Service on galumphing form). Mother Edith is under stress, attempting to do a perfect Christmas as her husband Francis is wheeled home with a post-operative stroke. Matthew is trying to diet, Sheena to stop drinking, Adam to give up smoking. None succeed.

Mangan and Jupp almost become credible characters, but Holcroft gives the women no subtleties at all to work on; indeed there’s a formulaic, cardboard case-history quality in all the characterisation. This is not helped by the gimmick of a lighted scoreboard overhead, detailing the “rules” for each character. Once or twice this is funny – Matthew always has to sit down in order to lie, and Carrie can’t stop dancing around telling jokes until someone laughs. But it woefully prevents the actors developing any fluid honest realism.

Just as well one doesn’t care much for any of the characters, because before the big row kicks off (over a complex card game, a clunky metaphor) the second act opens with an uneasily sadistic scene, modishly “dark”, as the younger generation confront the speechless wheelchair father and revert to childhood rivalries. If the best laugh for fifteen minutes is a stroke victim shouting “Fuck off” and groping a breast, you’re in trouble.

Indeed the trouble with the whole play is that until the final food fight it’s not as funny as it needs to be. You can see the jokes coming a mile away, and the one about a clumsy showoff visitor breaking an ornament and being tearfully told “It was my father’s” deserves a geriatric wheelchair of its own.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 8 July
Dorfman Partner – Neptune Investment Management
rating three3 Meece Rating

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