In the style of Alan Ayckbourn, Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living for Red Stitch portrays middle-class disarray at its most engaging.

By Peter Craven.

Red Stitch Theatre’s ‘Rules for Living’

A scene from Red Stitch’s Rules for Living
A scene from Red Stitch’s Rules for Living

It has been a better stretch of theatre recently, with an impressive production of Faith Healer by Judy Davis with her husband, Colin Friels, in the title role of that difficult mountain of a play about perspectival and moral indeterminacies. So unyielding is the Brian Friel work that its first run, in New York, closed after 20 performances in 1979 despite the dream casting of that saturnine dark-toned wizard of an actor James Mason as the charlatan with the powers. Well, Faith Healer is art (and I suppose truth) so try to get to the bump-out if you haven’t seen it because it closes in Melbourne tonight.

Rules for Living, however, at Red Stitch is only halfway through its run, and provides a complexly balanced hamper of comedy and drama. This inventive, if traditional, play about a family on the Christmas skids tending towards fatalities, or just swerving away, is as familiar and as mythical as any gift-giving celebration in honour of the value of the family and peace on earth and goodwill to people (well, fuck that for a game of soldiers, as the British say) possibly could be.

Rules for Living comes prepackaged as a play in the Alan Ayckbourn tradition, and it has a lot of the heady (or at any rate hearty) delights of that dramatic master of the middle way who nonetheless compelled the fascination of the great Alain Resnais (the director of Last Year at Marienbad, who filmed three of his plays) presumably because of the subtlety and the detail of inflection he can bring to the depiction of mundane malady and malfunction. Sam Holcroft may not be quite as subtly or skilfully unobtrusive in her pursuit of middle-class disarray as the author of The Norman Conquests or Season’s Greetings but the skill level and ability to entertain while also tugging at the heart (or any other handy appendage) has a comparable fizz.

There’s a central gag in Rules for Living that should be almost Germanically tedious and postmodern but isn’t because it’s far more theatrical than postmodern in practice. Each of the characters has particular tics that light up on the wall to instruct the audience: the latecomer to the law who might almost have been a great cricketer (and who tried but maybe not enough) can only cope with situations by assuming comical accents, sometimes an Australian one. His wife, on the other hand, can only dispute with a drink in her hand.

This is an interesting farcical variation on typology and it does engender laughs – as well as allow us a ho-hum worldliness about type characters – which never gets in the way of things merrily (and mercilessly) rolling along.

The younger brother who always aspired to be a musical comedy star is now the partner in his law firm and he comes home for the festive meal with a very hot and slightly scrubberish girl who is every inch an actress and does stand-up turns to prove it in pert and compelling fashion. His older brother is a bit blighted, sardonic and bitter, and in the throes of a marriage that’s not working and which he has no desire to have work with the aid of a therapist.

His wife is a shade less articulate than he is but more emotionally intelligent. They have a teenage daughter who is chronically fatigued. Then there is the obsessive and constricting control freak mother adhering to the order of the day like a headless chook (though sometimes with the aid of mother’s little helpers). And there is the paterfamilias of the family, a judge who has been in hospital and comes thunderingly on the scene towards the end of the play’s first half like a catastrophe.

Red Stitch does this crowd-pleaser with a touch of poison (or at any rate of danger) at its heart in a way that is slightly raw but that nonetheless tingles with energy and brio.

Rory Kelly, as the bro who might have trod the boards, has exactly the right kind of smiling desire to please, the sort of slightly duplicitous open-hearted charm the character requires, even if he might be meant to be slightly older and certainly a bit more well-covered, given the jokes about weight (someone with the build of that fine actor Dylan Watson). It remains a very adept and energised performance that does all the tricks it needs to with the right combination of hilarity and potential pathos.

And his brother – he of the accents and the cricket pitches – Mark Dickinson has considerable ornery authority and weight. Could he be starrier? Yes, but it doesn’t matter because every base is covered in a performance that shows a lot of care as well as considerable craft. Jem Nicholas as the actress girlfriend who gets everything wrong (and looks as if she’d do it in the street with sailors) is a scream. If the comedy sometimes makes her look like a wound-up toy, so does everybody’s and it’s meant to: and Nicholas is adept enough at indicating a real body and heart and mind behind the fuck-me Jill-in-the-box.

For what it’s worth, she looks great – which is fortunate because in this play she has to. This character is hot or she’s nothing, though she ends up, as Holcroft’s characters tend to, a bit bereft. Rules for Living is clowning with hearts that can break and are always already closer to doing so than you imagine.

That’s true with bells on of Jessica Clarke as the troubled wife, and she does very well, very vibrantly and powerfully, in a role that is written for a slightly older actress, closer to the first forlorn edge of early middle age. But here again Clarke’s ability to project pain, despite the mask of her manifest attractiveness, is extraordinarily winning and is more than the sum of its gestures. The composite is subtler in this performance – and throughout this production – than it might appear at a glance.

Caroline Lee as the mother seems at first too hectic and too closed to do justice to the character, but the performance grows and shows its strengths and comes into its own.

Ian Rooney does everything he has to do through the carapace of the old man’s condition.

And then there’s a dazzling entrance from the afflicted teenager – Ella Newton on the first night – which has a radiant innocence and niceness that counterpoints all the carry-on and treachery and has an absolute emotional reality that ballasts the whole production.

Some people will want to say this is a very obvious, very traditional piece of English theatre. That it need not be done for the sake of dramatic art, and that, if it is, it should be done with an absolute sure-footed mastery. Well, Rules for Living is a more sure-footed piece of dramatic writing than we are in the habit of seeing and Kim Farrant’s production for Red Stitch, if it is not flawless, nevertheless works at every point.

It is better cast and the cast perform better than is usually the case with our state theatre companies even when they are in the presence of material as manifestly vivid and viable as this.

Rules for Living is an entirely defensible example of the kind of literate and supple theatre that is only a step away from being overtly commercial and that certainly deserves to be seen by lots of people and will repay them in terms of the pleasure and catharsis it provides. This is that elementary, all-too-rare thing, comedy drama that does the job better than the cinema usually does – it’s more literate, more imaginative, more lived – while also sucking the audience in.

It forms an obvious contrast with Faith Healer, which in the Judy Davis–Colin Friels production blocks the audience out and leaves it like so many shags on the rock of its eerie eminence – so strong and grand and lonely. So far – despite Alison Whyte’s very fine performance – from asking for sympathy.

But these are both notably good pieces of theatre – one classic modern in the innovative mode (Celtic poetry, choric confusion through competing monologues), the other simply modern in the classical mode.

They each give heart, however, in a theatre world full of occasions for despair.


Arts Diary


VISUAL ART Denise Green

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until June 18

MUSIC Byron Bay Bluesfest

Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, NSW, April 13-17

MUSIC National Folk Festival

Exhibition Park, Canberra, April 13-17

CULTURE Tarra Festival

Venues in and around Yarram, Victoria, until April 13

EVENT Gladstone Harbour Festival

Gladstone, Queensland, April 12-16

VISUAL ART Stations of the Cross

Wesley Uniting Church, Perth, until April 17

Last chance

VISUAL ART Versailles: Treasures from the Palace

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until April 17

MUSIC Porchland

Newenham, Adelaide Hills, April 9

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 8, 2017 as "Christmas cracker".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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