Sunday May 27, 2018


March 23 2017

RULES FOR LIVING, Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne, 14 March-16 April 2017. Photography: above - Ella McCarthy, Caroline Lee, Ian Rooney, Jem Nicholas and Jessica Clarke; below - Jem Nicholas & Caroline Lee

Plays about family dynamics and Christmas lunch send a shiver down my spine. There is always going to be something that resonates that you would sooner keep buried.

Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living delivers the family black comedy with a psychological twist – she gives us the rules for living. What are the coping mechanisms that get us through our daily lives with personalities that have been honed from an upbringing that at times you want to disown?

It is set in an open plan kitchen-dining area, which is no mean feat in the Red Stitch space with the alcove brilliantly used as a “butlers pantry”. There is the obligatory Christmas tree, a turkey in the oven, gifts, food, grog and tinsel – all the hallmarks for a downward spiral. 

The play begins the way an annual family lunch would begin: arrivals with guarded pleasantries, and military style planning of the day by the matriarch Edith (Caroline Lee). She has made one concession this year and moved from the 24-hour clock to the 12-hour clock. Her youngest son Matthew (Rory Kelly), a compulsive liar who has just made partner in his law firm, arrives with his new squeeze Carrie (Jem Nicholas), an actor who is less than politically correct. Matthew however carries a torch for his sister-in-law Sheena (Jessica Clarke) who drinks to excess to cover the inadequacies of her marriage to Adam (Mark Dickinson) who is an underachiever and blames his father for his lot in life; that and the stress of his daughter Emma (Ella Newton) who is suffering a physiological illness. Then we have the tyrannical patriarch Francis (Ian Rooney), unseen until Act 2.  

As we meet each of them Holcroft has set up a device to introduce a “rule” for each character. With a “ding” our eyes are drawn to a projection on one of the pictures on the wall, which displays the rule. For example – Matthew’s rule – Matthew must sit to tell a lie and as the play moves forward he gets an extra rule: he must sit and eat to tell a lie. Each character has a rule, which is activated and then de-activated, which creates farcical routines and keeps the audience engaged or aghast. With the use of this theatrical device the audience gets to know each character’s rule for living. 


When Francis finally arrives in a wheelchair in an obvious state of unwellness, with signs of having had a stroke (unable to speak) elements of his true self are disinhibited and his lust for young flesh is no longer hidden. The sons are shocked and find it difficult to approach him. If he had been able bodied and still the head of the household they still would have had difficulty in approaching him, both suffering from his controlling effect on their childhoods. Matthew should have been an actor and Adam was a promising A Grade cricketer.

Director Kim Farrant and designer Sophie Woodward are true to Holcroft’s writing down to the finest detail. I struggled with such a contemporary set in the Red Stitch space later to understand that without the “straightness” of the set the anarchic descent would not be as shocking.

It is a well-directed, strong ensemble piece (Mark Dickinson a stand out) that creates laughter through unease and despair. It could have ended quite well after the entrance of the daughter who, through her innocence and quest to be well, shows the family members how pathetic they have become. It does, however, have a coda – the morning after, as they sheepishly take their leave. All of them, bar one, having had an epiphany. What is it about mothers? Highly Recommended.

Note: The role of Emma is covered by two actors: Ella Newton and Lily McCarthy



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