Rules for Living

Drama theatre, November 6


Boxing Day should probably be called “sorry day”, so routinely do people vent feelings the day before that they wish they could retract. Boiling one’s blood in the furnace of an Australian summer while gorging on pigs, poultry and booze could almost seem an excuse, except that the same behaviour blights the frozen northern hemisphere. And if you think your family gets ugly on December 25, trust me, they’re amateurs compared with the mob that British playwright Sam Holcroft depicts in her 2015 play Rules for Living.

Needing a new angle on a tired theme, Holcroft devised the idea of revealing to the audience written behavioural “rules” to which each character unknowingly adheres. The first is that “Matthew must sit to tell a lie”, and of course the moment he sits, sure enough, he lies, and we get a giggle. It’s a cunning ploy. She tells us their flaws and secrets, they enact them, we laugh, and the play is a comedy without her having had to nut out much in the way of wit. That’s not to say there aren’t any genuinely funny lines, but this device is the default source of humour.

Hazem Shammas (left) and cast. All photos: Daniel Boud.

Director Susanna Dowling (for STC), designer Charles Davis, audio-visual designer Laura Turner and composer/sound designer James Brown have bolstered all this by presenting each character’s rules on video screens with bright colours and zappy music, like a reality TV show – a cross between Sylvania Waters and The Batchelorette, say, with added turkey and pav.

Holcroft has come to the party, too, relocating the play to Sydney’s Northshore, localising myriad references and changing Sheena’s name to Nicole (the former presumably not being snooty enough). Nicole (Amber McMahon) is married to Adam (Hazem Shammas), who, like his brother Matthew (Keegan Joyce) has returned to the nest for Xmas, the latter with his newish girlfriend Carrie (Nikita Waldron). Their mother Edith (Sonia Todd) runs the day like a military campaign, with checklists for timing and job allocation.

Amber McMahon and Hazem Shammas. Photos: Daniel Boud.

This is the way her husband, ex-judge Francis (Bruce Spence), likes things done. Edith and the boys have serious grievances against Francis, who is being expressed from hospital for the festivities, and what with Adam and Nicole’s marriage disintegrating and Matthew and Nicole fancying each other, the table is royally laid for strife.

The fundamental problem is how rapidly Holcroft’s device wears thin. She strives to make it work by upping the stakes of everyone’s rules, so Matthew’s “sit to tell a lie” becomes “sit and eat to tell a lie”, for instance,  and then is compounded further, yet even all the reality-TV bells and whistles can’t blind us to the hollowness, because the characters are as thin as the conceit. The most interesting, Adam, who was a gun fast bowler before being compulsorily siphoned off to law school, is also the most amusing, and begets the play’s finest performance. Shammas routinely lights up the stage with Adam’s manic jocularity and unique, almost chorus-like capacity to grasp truth. When he’s not present you tend to hear the actors straining to hone blunt lines into zingers. Holcroft deepens her story slightly, before whipping up a climax of frenzied proportions, the very artificiality of which echoes the falseness of the term “reality TV”.

The reopening of the Opera House after eight months is a cause for celebration, and yet a certain sadness creeps in when you read the program and see three understudies were deemed wise in the COVID era.

Until December 19.