FringeReview UK 2017
Combining the excellence of English Touring Theatre and Royal Derngate & Northampton, with Rose Theatre Kingston, this first revival of a catastrophic family Christmas directed by Simon Godwin differs from Marianne Elliott’s production in several respects. Lily Arnold’s set splits kitchen and lobby in a pointed apex down centre, halved over pink and baby blue. The flashing signs now flash overhead in Andrzej Goulding’s video design. It’s now more a soft toy than a machine for living, Matt Daw’s lighting softening the ambience too. Mark Melville’s music and sound follows through.
Ex-scientist Sam Holcroft modestly demurs her comedy Rules for Living – premiered in 2015 at The National’s Dorfman – is truly Ayckbournesque: she merely aspires to master some of his technique – praising a human depth her farce can’t accommodate by its very nature. It’s Season’s Greetings designed for robots.
And yet Holcroft started off with a serious play, building characters. Only later did she add their external triggers when banana skins arrived. Her experience with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is key here. It’s knowing what makes you act automatically on a demented roundabout of the ego that winds down. How to get off it, become yourself, is what CBT’s all about. Who switches off the lights that flash on every time a character is about to act – in character; and each time something’s added.
It’s a kind of luxury combining the excellence of English Touring Theatre and Royal Derngate & Northampton, both estimable touring companies, with Rose Theatre Kingston. This first revival of a catastrophic family Christmas directed by Simon Godwin differs from Marianne Elliott’s production in several respects, not least a name change. It’s avowedly less of a game show, more a shouty comedy of manners. Lily Arnold’s set splits kitchen and lobby in a pointed apex down centre, halved over pink and baby blue. The set’s a kindergarten with lights, though the naturalistic kitchen is where everything happens. The flashing signs ‘Matthew must sit down to tell a lie’ now flash overhead in Andrzej Goulding’s video design. In the original the kitchen was tricked out with game-show displays at each end. It’s now more a soft toy than a machine for living, Matt Daw’s lighting softening the ambience too. Mark Melville’s music and sound follows through so we’re nearer an Ayckbourn look, but a play with labels.
Christmas brings its rituals, but Holcroft’s pushed this by creating a stereotypical family scenario outmoded by the 1970s. It allows tensions and stock characters to bounce off neatly, though slickness comes at the expense of a world more nuanced.
Two lawyers with wife and girlfriend respectively return to their parents, where the old Judge is due to resume his reign of terror, straight out of hospital. The eldest son Adam had played cricket for England, Matthew had acting talent. Both are solicitors but Adam only publishes articles; Matthew’s snaffled a partnership. Yet they never wanted the law. Paul Shelley’s Judge Francis snuffed them out, for the best of reasons, pretending to help. Shelley has few lines but glowers and erupts where no-one expects him to.
He’s not yet returned for most of the first act. Jane Booker’s Edith presides, a glacially welcoming, immediately wrong-footing mother, desperate to maintain control because ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say’ she really knows, you might tell the truth. Booker’s excellent at nuancing Edith’s menace and displacement. She shoos hapless actor Carrie into carrot-slicing. This is Carlyss Peer’s portrayal of a people-pleasing but scratch-me—and-I’ll-perform wind-up doll. Peer has the most extrovert yet mechanical role, only finally breaking into dignity by the end.
She’s with younger brother Matthew, Jolyon Coy’s evasively charming chimera, apparently solid but like his mother keen to manage others’ sincerity. Like Carrie too he’s a people-pleaser, but very different: he lies telling Carrie he loves her when he desires his brother’s wife, and everything imaginable sitting down. It’s his trademark just as Carrie’s is dancing about (this is where Holcroft loses it a little).
Adam’s by contrast an embittered ex-contender complaining how his father gave him the wrong advice about pace. That this should foreshortened his career is ludicrous; yet Shelley’s broken gramophone of a man convinces us that ‘the general’ as Adam terms him might have programmed Adam and Matthew. Ed Hughes has the finest part: his final speech laying all about him seems where the real drama begins. His is a rounded flawed and yet on occasion radiantly self-knowing man who sees his faults as he does everyone else’s. Hughes make the most of dangerous, frightened Adam who sees everything including his wife and daughter threaten to slip away.
Laura Rogers’ Nicole is equally self-knowing. The mostly off-stage daughter Emma suffers allergies directly related to her parents’ disharmony, we’re told. Nicole can see this just as clearly as she wants to pop pills in Emma’s mouth or take her some rarified gluten-free diet as she herself drinks every available glass of red. Rogers’ clarity makes Nicole believable despite foibles such as this, or with every argument calibrated around winning cases, like her own lawyer family. Nicole’s able to turn on the ferociously articulate Adam and silence him. Their sparring is the dramatic highpoint; especially when the pop-up CBT announcements begin to fade into audience cues (we’ve been programmed, and where to laugh). It’s where the play’s small ticking heart begins to pump and not whirr.
By the close of the work we realize as lights switch off who’s broken through, who’s merely a broken record. Some will be irritated with the mechanics of this, but the cast are uniformly excellent and Hughes and Rogers seize on their richer parts. Gracey Noakes’ question as Emma at the climax is a clever release of a trope that one person described as drama exercises. Perhaps: but no-one’s managed them like this before. It’s a variation worth nailing, not least because it interrogates a therapy many believe works. So whether it does or not, questioning why we slip into the behaviours we do is surely worth asking, more than once. And more than worth seeing.