Review: Rules For Living (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 2 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Sam Holcroft
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ella Jacob, Keegan Joyce, Amber McMahon, Hazem Shammas, Bruce Spence, Sonia Todd, Nikita Waldron
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
It is Christmas lunch at Francis’ home in the affluent North Shore. He is a successful lawyer, and both his sons are desperately trying to follow in his footsteps, although their authentic passions lie clearly in other fields. A lot of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living talks about the conflict between who we are, and who we are expected to be. It is about the standards set by society, by family, friends and lovers, that have very little to do with what one needs for a satisfying existence, and everything to do with obedience, and for keeping up with the joneses. An examination of middle class mirage is plat du jour, as served up by this predictable comedy, giving us nothing edgy or indeed revelatory.

Actor Sonia Todd plays Edith, mother to the boys, especially effective when bringing emphasis to the irony of narcissistic anguish in people who have it all. Everything is too stressful in her perfect world, where not a hair is allowed to be out of place. Todd offers an accurate sense of bourgeois uptight-ness, that is valuable in our understanding of early twenty-first century Western civilisation, even though the noisy ensemble piece does ultimately prevent anything meaningful or profound to be properly conveyed.

Directed by Susanna Dowling, the show is consistently energetic, but bewilderingly unfunny. The performers work extraordinarily hard to entertain, but none seems to have located any significant humour in the piece, that they so laboriously bring to the stage. Their approaches range from realist to absurdist, all of which miss the mark, although it can often appear that there is little in the writing that is inherently amusing. Design aspects are elegant and polished, but conservatively rendered, for a production that looks, sounds and feels like the hundred Christmas comedies that have come before, always unthreatening, but banal at best.

As we try to survive a living hell comprised of Trumpism and COVID-19, telling stories about vicious family dynamics in 2020, proves to be an exercise that feels little more than a slightly quaint distraction from real life. What might have been important theatre in 2015, when Rules For Living had made its international premiere, now lacks pertinence in a vastly transformed world. There are much bigger fish to fry, and art needs to keep up.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au