The new play at Red Stitch is very modern, original and quite long – a two act show with each act at about 90 minutes, and add a decent interval, so pack your lunch and an overnight bag. (yes yes, I’m kidding) Though the theatre is in the grounds of a St Kilda church at Chapel & Dandenong Rd, and you can park your vehicle ten metres from the theatre, so…
That said, the play is easy to watch, with an ensemble cast (six and a half players) doing a sterling job of bringing the piece to life. “Rules for Living” is written by English playwrite Sam Holcroft, who has written a few theatre pieces to some acclaim, and it is no surprise, after seeing the play, to find that Sam is a woman, for the insights into the characters suggest a female hand.
The plot: We’ve seen this before but that’s okay. A post-nuclear family finds a reason to come together again. Not a death this time, but the mundanity of a xmas meal. It’s a fairly tight unit, two sons, mother & father. But the older of the kids, Adam (played by Mark Dickinson) is married to Sheena (Jessica Clarke) and they’ve got a mildly crook teenager (Ella Newton on my night, but I think shared with Lily McCarthy) who seems to have 21st Century disease. The younger bro is Matthew (played by Rory Kelly) who has dragged along his new squeeze, the daggy doofus Carrie (Jem Nicholas).
So let the play begin, and to mis-use Hamlet, “for the play’s the thing
Wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the King.” But the patriarch of this suburban joint, Francis (played by Ian Rooney) is in no state to have his conscience caught. And we begin to understand the dominance of Francis in this household, and where the ‘Rules’ for living came from. He dominated his children and enlisted his wife Edith (Caroline Lee) to uphold the law. Both his sons were in love with performing – Adam as a talented cricketer who starred at Lords, the very home of cricket, and Matthew who strutted before the theatre lights. Yet the father drove them to careers with more reliable futures and incomes…but less passion.
This is where playwrite Sam throws in some psychology to inject a large dose of black humour into the bleak suburban tapestry. Using tenets of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which aims to correct negative behaviour patterns formed in childhood, the play commands the actors to follow certain social rules when they play out their unconscious social response patterns. And the CBT is driving the play.
Director Kim Farrant, I am told in the Red Stitch program notes, is set to direct a feature film based on a Luke Davies’ (“Candy” etc) script. And here she has pulled the ensemble cast into a mostly relaxed and (insert useful word here, please, editor) performance. I’d imagine an ensemble cast is most difficult to write for and to direct, with many many sub-plots or meta-plots and schema being woven into and through the central issue which is—well I don’t know really. Perhaps social repression. Perhaps childhood self-preservation methods which later in life occlude real living, whatever that might be. So that’s the recipe for this xmas dinner and it has produced a most entertaining evening with the entire ensemble delivering, though I was particularly taken with the performances of the actors behind Sheena and Matthew, yet lest this opinion seem to take kudos from the rest of the cast & crew, I would hasten to add, shove that up your jumper, they were all good. “Rules For Living” is on now, see Red Stitch for further details, I would imagine…#