Rules For Living review: Family tensions bubble over in wildly funny Christmas drama

Rules For Living review: Family tensions bubble over in wildly funny Christmas drama
  1. Rules For Living review: Family tensions bubble over in wildly funny Christmas drama
    An all-in, turkey-flinging brawl punctuates a familiar set-up that's carried off…

THEATRE RULES FOR LIVING ★★★★ Sam Holcroft Red Stitch Actors Theatre, St Kilda Until April 16

Staging hot, new, international plays has long been part of the brief at Red Stitch, and when the company is on song they do it better than anyone.

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Merry Christmas: (from left) Ella McCarthy, Caroline Lee, Ian Rooney, Jem Nicholas and Jessica Clarke. Merry Christmas: (from left) Ella McCarthy, Caroline Lee, Ian Rooney, Jem Nicholas and Jessica Clarke. Photo: Teresa Noble

So it proves with this impressive production of Sam Holcroft's Rules For Living – a wildly funny domestic comedy in the mould of Alan Ayckbourn's​ Seasons Greetings.

Holcroft's stage family has gathered at the ancestral home for Christmas (always a cosmic amplifier for familial dysfunction) and each character arrives armed with well-developed coping strategies for managing resentments and tensions that bubble away under the surface.

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Jem Nicholas and Caroline Lee. Jem Nicholas and Caroline Lee. Photo: Teresa Noble

Long-suffering mother Edith (Caroline Lee) distracts herself by imposing order on chaos: compulsive cleaning; organising lunch with military precision. She's not above scarfing over-the-counter analgesics, either, and when we meet her ailing husband (Ian Rooney) – an abusive, philandering judge – you wonder why Edith isn't addicted to something stronger.

Her two adult sons have been shaped (and scarred) by their parents. The eager-to-please Matthew (Rory Kelly) has a smile for every occasion, and he needs all of them to handle his family's disdain for new girlfriend Carrie (Jem Nicholas) – an actress who flails through her social awkwardness with crude extroversion.


Elder brother Adam (Mark Dickinson) resorts to relentless sarcasm to survive his bitterness at career failure and a troubled marriage. His wife Sheena (Jessica Clarke) forces herself to be dutiful, and can only seem to stand up for herself with glass in hand.

Low-key observational humour swells by degrees into farce, ending in the meticulously detailed set being trashed by a chaotic, turkey-flinging all-in brawl.

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