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Must-see theatre: Rules for Living

A dark but playful comedy from British playwright Sam Holcroft that will get you thinking about a familiar theme in a new way

by Elizabeth Heathcote

Rules for Living at the National Theatre

The set-up will be familiar to many of us – a kitchen laid out for Christmas lunch, adult offspring gathering with varying degrees of resentment and trolleyloads of emotional baggage.

It’s not a new theme, but Sam Holcroft’s dysfunctional family is brought bang up to date in Rules for Living by being viewed through the prism of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Everyone has their own behavioural 'rule' that relentlessly trips them up, but which they seem incapable of seeing, let alone changing. So Adam (the excellent Stephen Mangan) has to adopt a silly accent and call people names – in order to deflect blame from himself. Sheena (Claudie Blakley) needs to drink – in order the have the last word. Matriarch Edith (Deborah Findlay) cleans manically – in order to avoid unpleasant truths. And so on.

They might all muddle on this way for ever, as families do, but the stakes have been raised by the damage to the next generation. Are these people capable of opening their eyes and changing?

The formula may sound rigid and reductive, but Holcroft – who studied biology and has a passion for psychology – pulls it off brilliantly. Her dialogue is fast, packed tight and very funny. I laughed from start to finish.

Rules for Living is at the National Theatre (Dorfman), London SE1, until 8 July. To book tickets, click here

Pictured: Maggie Service (Carrie), Stephen Mangan (Adam), John Rogan (Francis), Deborah Findlay (Edith) and Miles Jupp (Matthew) in Rules for Living

Photograph: Simon Annand

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