Rules for Living

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Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Christmas and grammar play is an intriguing mix of themes, but for Red Stitch’s Rules for Living, it has culminated in a marvellous and highly entertaining piece of theatre. What is a rule for living? It is the coping mechanism you adopt to rally yourself during hard times as you wait for the internal psychological storm to pass. Milk Bar Mag was there to attend the opening night and watch the pandemonium ensue! 

Written by young British playwright Sam Holcroft, the hilarious black comedy dives deep into the strange strategies we use to adapt to survive social encounters. Using an intense Christmas family gathering as the backdrop, Holcroft succeeds in fleshing out family dynamics – the tensions, insecurities, rivalries – to the point where you can’t help but see a little bit of yourself in each of the characters. 

The act opens on the frenzied hours before Christmas Day lunch and we meet Matthew (Rory Kelly) – the golden child, ex-actor turn solicitor – treading dangerous waters as he attempts to delicately curb his girlfriend Carrie’s obnoxious, loud and uncouth behaviour before his mother, Edith (Caroline Lee), arrives from church. Decked in all the bells and whistles that scream Twelve Days of Christmas, Carrie inveigles reassurance from Matthew that her eagerness to fit in and her bigger-than-life personality will gel with the family. 

A sense of tension bubbles when the happily married Sheena (Jessica Clarke) and Adam (Mark Dickinson) arrive dropping the bombshell that their teenage daughter Emma will miss the festivities due to her anxiety, fearing the Christmas shindig will cause a setback. When left alone, it is clear the loving couple are merely keeping up appearances, unloading a bevy of martial blues all over the kitchen floor, and nothing is as it seems. 

The hilarity escalates when Edith arrives and hurries to make the entire event perfect in time for their father’s return from hospital and works tirelessly to maintain the family’s shaky facade of civility and correctness, even to the detriment of her own health. Despite everyone’s good intentions to be on their best behaviour, relationships are tested and family secrets are unearthed, leaving no one unscathed. 

From the get go, Rules for Living is witty and intelligent, supported by a committed ensemble cast who are not afraid to delve deep into their character’s traits – their flaws and insecurities – and brilliantly fleshing it out on the stage. Mark Dickinson is exceptional as Adam, a man crippled by his inability to improve his life, who swiftly deflects blame in one moment while conveying his inner turmoil the next. 

It is difficult to pinpoint one stand-out scene, but the inherently complicated game of Bedlam is comedic genius. It serves as the catalyst, bringing all the family tensions to the surface. Notable mentions go to Jem Nichols for her Beyonce rendition and Caroline Lee’s sharp timing – her lines are laced with enough venom to make the most self-assured person quake in their boots. 

In partnership with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Rules for Living is and entertaining series of misunderstandings.

Rules for Living
Red Stitch, 2 Chapel Street, St Kilda East
Till Sunday, 16 April

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