Review: Rules for Living at Cambridge Arts Theatre - A family tearing each other apart shouldn’t be this funny

Rules for Living: Carlyss Peer as Carrie and Jane Booker as Edith. Picture by Mark Douet

Rules for Living: Carlyss Peer as Carrie and Jane Booker as Edith. Picture by Mark Douet - Credit: Photo by Mark Douet

Seeing a family tear each other apart shouldn’t be this funny. This play is fast paced and glorious. The plot of Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft sounds like a cliché: a family gets together at Christmas and start eating each other instead of the dinner. Not a new idea but it is when cooked up like this. I loved every minute of it. It’s cleverly written, it’s supremely funny, the set is charming and the performances are superb.

The trick is that from the start the audience is in on the joke. In lights above the set, we are told each character’s own “rules for living”.

We see that Matthew must “sit down to tell a lie” then as the story unfolds: “Matthew must sit down and eat to tell a lie”.

So when Matthew (played deftly by Jolyon Coy) is asked a difficult question by his girlfriend and we see him immediately sit down and reach for a mince pie, we laugh.

When the family is at each other’s throats, or there is bad news, mum Edith, with a nod to Hyacinth Bucket, must clean to stay calm. When things get desperate she must clean and take medicine to stay calm. So in the midst of crisis, she insists the alcoholics use a coaster. Jane Booker who plays her has exactly the right touch.

There is a danger of the show being stolen by Carlyss Peer as Matthew’s vivacious actress girlfriend Carrie (who we are told must stand up to tell a joke). She can barely sit down because jokes are a compulsive reaction with her. Dancing about the stage and sending up every situation she can, this character is a joy to watch. It’s tempting not to take your eyes off her.

This looks like a play which is sublime to perform - as well as great fun to watch - because everyone has so much to do and plenty of light and shade in their roles.

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Matthew’s brother Adam (a strong performance by Ed Hughes) can only mock people when he puts on a different accent and mocking is his default mode.

His estranged wife Nicole (feisty Laura Rogers, with wonderful projection) can only contradict what is said when she takes a drink – then as things degenerate, she must both drink and interrupt. This makes for some powerful arguments between them.

Paul Shelley is wonderful as the father Francis. Unable to speak, he speaks volumes. He makes an appearance only towards the end but the humour of his relatively cameo role is a treasure.

The plot builds up nicely until, like a Christmas pudding exploding in the microwave, there is some marvellously choreographed slapstick at the end. I was shrieking with laughter by then. A brilliant piece of entertainment. Super rules for theatre.