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

full cast

Carrie, played by Helen Stott, is standing so she must be telling a joke to Matthew (Rod Bissett), left, Edith (Joanne James), Sheena (Christina Peak), Adam (Dominic Holmes) and Francis (Paul Viles)

Rules for Living

Grange Playhouse


Anyone who has ever seen the fairy on the Christmas tree don a tin hat will know that the festive season can be the family equivalent of the Glorious Twelfth, the opening of the shooting, or more likely, sniping season when a year or even longer’s niggles and nags can be flushed from their roosts by the heady mix of alcohol and bon homie.

Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings gave us a winter skirmish but Sam Holcroft has gone for all out war in this tinsel wrapped treat with a rich dark, one might even say black, centre. Delicious, laugh out loud comedy – just don’t forget to duck when the missiles fly.

It all starts so serenely, Matthew, played by Rod Bissett, is the youngest son, a lawyer who wanted to be an actor, and has arrived home for a family Christmas lunch with actress girlfriend Carrie.

It’s a wonderful performance. His Matthew is a bundle of nervous energy, a would be peacemaker and as honest as . . . well a very short day as it turns out, white and not so white lies his speciality. Bissett will also need a new wardrobe or intensive dieting to recover from the role – something we will explain later.

Helen Stott is a delightful and attractive Carrie, worried, perhaps with some justification, that she will not fit in with a family who it turns out would even give dysfunctional a bad name.

Then there is Sheena, who exhibits a fair helping of neurosis, and has arrived with eldest son Adam, another lawyer who wanted and indeed for a time was a professional cricketer. Sheena, played with a homely charm by Christina Peak, has known the boys since childhood and you suspect Christmas with her husband’s family has the limited appeal that it is marginally better than Christmas with her own. Dominic Holmes’ Adam is a joker, the jokes often wrapped in barbed wire.

He seems to have a chip, or perhaps more a bag of spuds on his shoulder about something, and you feel is spoiling for a fight. His cricket career, or at least its abrupt end, seems to be the root of much of his frustration.

Their daughter is Emma, stricken down with chronic fatigue, and a diet which avoids anything the least bit interesting. She fails to join us until the war is over. It is a part shared between Louisa Vance and Molly Fitzpatrick, who alternate between delicate daughter and rules fairy, of which more to come. 

Then there is Edith, the matriarch, who rules with a rod of . . . well more a clipboard of specific Christmas lunch timings and a list of instructions which are carried out more from the want of an easy life than following orders.  


Christmas turkey advice No 1: Don't allow anyone with dubious mental stability anywhere near the carving knife.

She is married to Francis, High Court judge, and low life lecher, who has suffered a stroke and is on Christmas release from hospital. Joanne James’ Edith is a gem, a bustling whirlwind of energy, commanding her army even if the troops are less than compliant, carrying on with the plan set in stone no matter what.

As for Francis . . . Paul Viles has very little to say, and not much that we can understand, apart from one memorable sentence which was a form of asking Edith to perhaps go away. Viles doesn’t need to speak though, even with limited movement in a wheelchair he tells you all you need to know.

So, with the characters lined up, let the Bedlam begin – that’s the card game Matthew brings for a bit of fun – it turns out it’s fun for us but certainly not for them, indeed its more toxic in their case, marking all their cards with the order of battle.

But I digress. Now, one of the things you learn in life is that people have tells, little gestures, habits, looks that give away what is really going on behind the innocent looking face. You know the sort of thing, politicians lying if the lips are moving, or a wife having a headache at bedtime, everyone has their tells, and this lot all have their little giveaways.

Just to save time we even have a rules fairy - told you she would feature - to keep us up to date with the current and subtly changing rules for each character, posting the latest updates on the proscenium arch.

Thus we learn, for example, that Matthew has to sit down to lie, which makes some of his conversations look like musical chairs. A later rule change adds a need to eat as well as sit down, hence the likely widening of Mr Bissett’s girth as Matthew often finds truth a foreign land he rarely visits.

Edith has to clean to keep calm, which produces the shiniest set in amateur theatre, Carrie has to stand to tell a joke, which with Matthew sitting to tell a lie means they have a very much up and down relationship.


Matthew finds himself torn between Sheena and Carrie with Francis looking on

The first act is gloriously funny, setting the scene, except we do notice all is not completely rosy between our happily . . . Scrub that - between our couples. The odd word here and there, odd confession – the idyl is looking more like piddle.

The return of Francis is the catalyst, the Archduke Ferdinand moment, when war becomes inevitable. The comedy remains, but the dark clouds have rolled in, the laughs are becoming uneasy.

In the second act we watch a family and relationships falling apart, love lying and dying, truths flying home in droves as we descend, literally, into a battle royal with turkey, sprouts, mash, squirty cream flying around the stage along with broken crockery and no shortage of dry cleaning required.

Which means a Christmas lunch afresh every night and a few hours of opportunity for Edith to calm down with a war zone clean up before the next performance.

In the lead up we have Bedlam the game, bedlam the result, apologies all round, and a peace that lasts about the same length of time it takes to say the word.

Adam, who has to use an accent to mock, which is rule four if you are interested, has gone into yah boo mode in funny voices, lashing out at all and sundry, Matthew has stood up to go into confessional mode, while Carrie . . . well she has become a fiancée and then an ex-fiancée in about the same length of time it takes Sheena to down a bottle of red. 

Sheena, who had gone teetotal, is now in lashing lush mode, Edith is cleaning anything that doesn’t move and Francis . . . well he slumps in his wheelchair seemingly enjoying every minute.

The nearest we get to reconciliation as a ceasefire ensues is that no one is actually dead as everyone sheepishly comes in to say farewell to Edith as the family gathering, and indeed the entire family breaks up.

But then again, there is always next Christmas . . .

It's not a well known play, dates back to 2011, but it is a delight. It is genuinely funny, has some wit and wonderful lines about it and is a superb, well acted production.

What is a thoroughly enjoyable evening is directed by Dawn Vigurs who will ensure the family will be falling apart to 25-03-23.

Roger Clarke


Grange Players

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