Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Happy families? Ben Lee as Matthew tries to explain his game to Sharon Clayton as Sheena. Louise Grifferty as Carrie, Rob Phillips as Francis, Denise Phillips as Edith  and Simon Baker as Adam.

Pictures: Alastair Barnsley

Rules for Living

Highbury Theatre Centre


Sam Holcroft’s 2015 play is rather like a strong latte. It starts off light and frothy, slowly becomes darker and stronger, finally becoming rather bitter when you reach the dregs at the end.

It is rather like Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings with attitude as we join another dysfunctional family for Christmas, that time of peace and goodwill to all men – that is after the claws out and bared teeth release of pent up home truths, suspicions, hang ups and common or garden family disagreements have been dealt with.

Here we have a family of lawyers on Christmas morning with Matthew played with an outwardly confident air by Ben Lee, outwardly confident in that he seems to appear to agree with everyone, telling people what they want to hear. Matthew is in his 30s, successful, urbane, who you suspect wanted a career on the stage, but, persuaded – some might say manipulated – to become a lawyer by domineering lawyer father Francis.

He has just been offered a partnership in his firm, which he didn’t want to reveal, as either he didn’t want to appear boastful or dislikes success in a career he never really wanted in the first place.

His real problem is that he not so much lies but avoids the truth, and he has a compulsion to eat the more he avoids it, which we discover is the first rule of his life. It is a bit like Pinocchio’s nose, an obvious tell if you are in the know- Ben should put on at least a stone through this run.

Matthew has arrived with new girlfriend Carrie played with a slightly unhinged air by Louise  Grifferty. She is an actress, perhaps Matthew’s lost dream by proxy, with a penchant for the vulgar and jokes in bad taste, and more down to earth than the aspirations of Matthew’s family – or at least his mother, Edith.

Carrie is like a Jack Russell with worms, unable to sit for long, always dancing around and constantly making quips and jokes, you suspect as a defence mechanism. When she finally gets really  excited, worried and upset it is like a scene from Riverdance as she hops from foot to foot.

Contrast that with Edith, a delightful performance from Denise Phillips. Edith, you suspect, last smiled around the time of the coronation in 1953. She runs Christmas to a timetable, unchanged probably since that last smile. The only variation is that Christmas lunch this year will be at one-o’clock instead of the normal 13.00 hours.


Boxing Day: A baffled Francis looks on as Adam and Matthew square up in a fraternal fury

Everything must be done precisely her way, with any variation, or, woe betide, any error admonished in a quiet, precise, belittling way. If she gets upset or angry she cleans, quietly and obsessively, to remain calm, even polishing her hand of cards when a game turns into chaos. It appears, in the dramatic climax, that she also has a reputation for popping pills.

Adam, played with a mix of bon homie and sarcasm by Simon Baker is the older brother, in his 40s and another solicitor, but he was a promising professional cricketer, a fast bowler whose career was destroyed by interference by Francis – trying to mould him into the player he wanted rather than the one his son had become.

Adam is the friendly life and soul of the party, but there is a barbed edge to his joviality, and you know when the sarcasm or mockery is on its way because out comes the funny voice – another tell, another rule we know - and he doesn't.

He does raise one interesting point though – why do we celebrate the birth of a Jewish baby with pigs in blankets . . . pork sausages wrapped in bacon? Who thought that one up?

His marriage to Sheena is struggling to put it mildly. We never quite find out why, but then if we did Adam and Sheena would also know; They could then have worked it out so that the marriage would be saved or over and Sharon Clayton’s Sheena would not be trying, without success, to get Adam to a therapist.

Clayton is a safe pair of hands at Highbury and her Sheena is not exactly a drunk but seems more at home with a glass in her hand. She interrupts regularly - another tell - and some of her battling verbal exchanges with Adam, claim, counter claim, contradictions and interruptions, are so convincing you wonder if they continue in the dressing room as well.

Part of their disagreement is daughter Emma, played on alternate nights by Isabelle Baglin and Leah Greatrex She appears amid the chaos of the penultimate scene when family order, indeed, family itself breaks down in a battle royal. She becomes the broker of peace or at least a reason for everyone to stop and see what they have become.

Emma has been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as ME, and she has been undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy to find the cause. Sheena has become a disciple, Adam less so, in fact, he thinks it is all a load of old codswallop.

Then there is the once strong patriarch, Francis, whose will in his prime was law. In his 70s he has been in hospital undergoing cardiac surgery, but has had a little setback according to Edith. She tells the family he is recovering well but she is in denial. He has suffered a stroke and you wonder if the real problem is that she cannot even contemplate life without him.

Francis played by Rob Phillips manages to make it home, pushed in a wheelchair just in time for the interval.

It is not the easiest of parts, with limited mobility and speech little more than grunts, with everything portrayed through Phillips' telling glances and facial expressions.


Party over - Can Adam and Sheena salvage their marriage from the devastation around them that once was a family Christmas

Come Christmas lunch, at 1pm as decreed, and Francis attempts to carve, threatening anyone who tries to stop him until Sheena gently takes the knife from him and carves the turkey – with all the finesse of an explorer hacking his way through the jungle with a machete.  Anger, yes, but bootiful it ain’t.

As the meal starts Francis has little movement in his hands but what little he does have finds its way to Carrie’s breasts – which to be fair have been on display in her shop window all night – but it is a grope which is a catalyst to set in train an explosion of feelings and bitterness that goes back to childhood.

The anger, frustration, fears and resentment boils over in Adam who questions everything he has known or grown up with in a soliloquy of fury. His damaged cricketing career, his overbearing mother, and as for his brother? He questions whether Matthew is having an affair with Sheena or whether his brother ever intended to marry Carrie as she believes - no one escapes his wrath.

In truth, the proposal of marriage was probably another of Matthew’s white lies to keep the peace, say what will keep people happy now and hope the bill won’t be presented later – but it shows up the emotional vulnerability of Carrie as her life joins the rest flushing down Adam’s pan.

It is a raw wound of emotional pain from Adam at his failing marriage, destroyed hopes of playing cricket for England, suffocating family and unfulfilled life come to a head. The reaction? The  family implodes into physical attacks and playground fights with Christmas dinner as weapons - sprouts and turkey flying everywhere – wear a mac, or better still a bin liner, if you are on the front row by the way.

Amid the family at war the always calm, outwardly, Edith finally snaps while, Francis, who started it all looks on in bemusement.

The play is a comedy, sort of, black as coal, light hearted fun at the start becoming ever more nervous laughter as relationships disintegrate and, with hints of The Glass Menagerie, a screen at the side of the stage slowly lists the rules of living for each character in turn, modifying the rules three times as the tiny cracks in relations become chasms – but only we the audience know what rules they are playing by.

The build-up is slow, the climax dramatic and the final scene a little sad as Christmas present quickly becomes Christmas past as the exodus begins, Carrie knowing it was too good to be true, Adam promising to change, Shenna not sure if he can, Matthew . . . who knows, and Edith . . . with her kitchen walls and floor splattered with the detritus of a food fight and chairs and table overturned,  slowly starts to clean. Then, as Adam tries to say sorry and talk, she restores a little of her challenged authority, demanding, amid the sprout and turkey littered floor, overturned chairs and wrecked dinner, that he uses a coaster for his beer.

Malcolm Robertshaw’s set is simple and effective, a kitchen/diner leading to a conservatory complete with Christmas tree awaiting the final touches while director Ian Appleby has paced it to perfection. Well-acted with convincingly played characters, the laughs of the opening slowly becoming more edgy as the mood darkens bit by bit. Light and frothy to dark and bitter remember.

It is an entertaining modern play, exploring and dissecting generations and relationships, we might even question our own tells, our own rules we employ for coping with our own lives – in fact the only people who are not going to enjoy it, or get anything from it, are the cleaners . . . . To 06-3-19

Roger Clarke


Note: There are a few explitives as tempers unravel but it is limited and used in context. 

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