The. Best. Stage. Fight. Ever. Period. Maybe that sounds a bit over the top but know this: there is a stage fight in Rules for Living (at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until the end of the month) that is at least good enough to make me go over the top.
By the time it comes, though, the excellent cast and clever staging have already propelled this production from its teasing opening canter through some all too familiar tropes of door slamming farce into a fizzing belly laugh wonderland.
It’s all there: Jane Booker’s harassed mum martyring herself to make Christmas work, Jolyon Coy and Ed Hughes are Matthew and Adam the competitive sons nurturing secret flaws shamefully, Laura Rogers is the embittered and disillusioned wife of Matthew while Carlyss Peer is the adorable Carrie – Adam’s girlfriend who seems both aware of but unable to resist her ditzy optimism. Finally Paul Shelley produces a magical turn as Francis, a distant and uncommunicative father who is incapable of doing anything but grumpily revel in his own self-indulgence.
Just as you are settling in, however, a rule for how Matthew must deliver his performance pops-up as a projection at the top of the stage. It immediately adds a new comic dimension as the character responds to it but attempts to conceal their new foible from the others.
Each character has their own instructions appearing throughout the play on a projected card coloured to reflect their clothing and so we find ourselves in a universe secretly governed by game mechanics
The original treatment of this hit London show presented audiences with Rules for Living as a gameshow mediating the action of a family drama. The Royal & Derngate set design and costuming tilts the feel back towards the kitchen sink but with the rules still underpinning everything.
And because this is farce (which can never be complicated enough) there is even a game within a game when the family sits down to play Bedlam together which features rules they must all play by and rules they must play by individually…
Writer Sam Holcroft has pulled off a neat deconstruction trick with the comedy drama genre in Rules for Living. For the thesps in the audience it evoked memories of acting school exercises in which they would be challenged to improvise a scene under conditions arbitrarily chosen by their teacher. However Holcroft’s original inspiration was experiencing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques in which anxiety or stress might be tackled by means such as deliberately slowing your breathing.
Apart from being very funny the approach creates an unexpectedly strong framework for examining the whole idea of rules: how they can liberate as much as they restrict or detonate a situation as much as they might keep the peace.
The crowning glory of this dense interweaving of rules is, as you might expect, the moment when it all unravels in a spectacular Christmas lunch melee (ironically an incredibly tightly choreographed section of the show). The cast really pulls off something special which I refuse to describe in too much detail because you’ve just got to go and see it happen live. Fight director Kev McCurdy clearly deserves a name check but it’s an intricate sequence, beautifully executed.
Throughout the show there are constant references to Emma, Adam and Nicole’s daughter who mainly exists off stage as a kind of Rapunzel imprisoned by her parents’ anxieties over an ever growing list of conditions she suffers from. She joins the action at the resolution and for our performance was played by local youth actor Siena Rista who capably delivered the requisite innocence and no-nonsense common sense.
If I’m honest I would have needed my arm twisted to go to this show because of the whiff of farce but I would have been missing out on an innovative piece of Made In Northampton comedy drama (MiN basically took care of the staging). This is one that I am telling people to go and see because it is clever and laugh out loud funny.