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MiNDFOOD reviews: Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘Rules for Living’

MiNDFOOD reviews: Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘Rules for Living’

Family. Christmas. Two words that can strike terror into the heart of many of us, so deep do familial divisions sometimes run and roles dating back to childhood endure.

MiNDFOOD reviews: Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘Rules for Living’

In Rules for Living, uber-organised sixty-something mum, Edith is hosting the family for Christmas – as she does every year. Sons Adam and Matthew are there, with Adam’s wife, Nicole and Matthew’s new actress girlfriend, Carrie.

Carrie suffers from over-sharing and is an acquired taste, while younger brother, Matthew is harbouring a decades-old love for his sister-in-law, Nicole, which he struggles constantly to conceal. Nicole and Adam are on the brink of separating but putting on a happy face for Christmas.

Added to the mix is their father, disciplinarian and retired judge, Francis, who previously prescribed the narrow list of subjects allowed to be discussed en famille, but who is now largely felled by a stroke and apt to do and say inappropriate things.

Then upstairs in bed is young adolescent, Emma who is suffering from anxiety derived from striving too hard to be perfect and therefore unable to face lunch with her parents (Adam and Nicole) and the rest of the family.

By ascribing to each character a typical action they ‘must’ adhere to – for example, Edith cleans rather than speak her mind, Matthew sits down and eats when he is compelled to lie, Adam uses a silly voice to tell the truth – the playwright, Sam Holcroft reveals through mannerisms not only each character’s true feelings but also their tried-and-true method of dealing with it. Inevitably, you will recognise elements of your own family dynamics. I did.

I enjoyed the first half of the play. The writing is crisp, the performances – including Keegan Joyce (Matthew) and Sonia Todd (Edith) from ABC TV’s Rake, and veteran actor Bruce Spence as Francis – are engaging; and the set (a roomy kitchen/dining room/living room combo) rings true for this middle-class, surface-happy family.

It is in the second half however – after Francis makes his entrance and the characters’ authentic motivations, buried feelings and resentments begin to escape – that it builds to laugh-out-loud funny.

With most of us having been deprived this year of live entertainment and a good communal belly laugh, Rules for Living provides a quality night at the theatre with some spikily accurate takes on mental health, love, the patriarchy, familial dynamics and how everyone – no matter their age – can revert to their childhood self at Christmas.

Rules for Living
Sydney Theatre Company
Sydney Opera House, until 19 December
Images: Daniel Boud

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