Gathering a dysfunctional family together around the dinner table, at which grudges inevitably erupt, is a time-honoured theatrical convention. Make it Christmas lunch and you have a fair idea of the kind of drama to expect.

In her play Rules for Living, which premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2015, UK playwright Sam Holcroft takes the Christmas lunch trope and delivers a farce – but with a twist. Right up front, she tells the audience about the behavioural tics or coping mechanisms of each of the characters by displaying the information on panels across the top of the stage. So, as the play unfolds, we know what is going on beneath the surface and when the characters are telling the truth.

It’s Christmas at the home of Edith (Sonia Todd) and Francis (Bruce Spence). The latter is currently being treated in hospital for some kind of ailment, about which Edith is very vague, but he will be returned home at any minute.

Keegan Joyce and Nikita Waldron. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Their grown-up sons Matthew (Keegan Joyce) and Adam (Hazem Shammas) have both arrived; Matthew with his new girlfriend Carrie (Nikita Waldron), a perky actress, and Adam with his up-tight, new-age wife Nicole (Amber McMahon) and their 14-year-old daughter Emma (Ella Jacob), who is hiding away upstairs.

We soon discover that Matthew and Adam are both lawyers, like their disciplinarian father, but that Matthew is a frustrated actor and Adam was once a promising cricketer.

Edith runs Christmas like a military operation with a six-page spreadsheet of tasks to be shared. She wants everything to be exactly as it has been since time immemorial, but this year it seems unlikely that things will go to plan, what with Carrie’s vulgar sense of humour, Emma’s anxiety, which sees her refusing to come downstairs to eat, Nicole’s need to drink and rocky marriage to Adam, not to mention Matthew’s secret longing.

Susanna Dowling directs the play for Sydney Theatre Company on a smart set designed by Charles Davis, which is in large part naturalistic with its detailed kitchen, dining area and lounge, complete with Christmas tree. Juxtaposing the realism is a frame across the top of the stage with panels on which photographs of the characters and text describing their various tics are flashed up in the manner of a reality TV show.

As the tension rises, the description of their idiosyncratic antics is expanded. Thus we learn initially that Matthew needs to sit down to lie, and later that he also needs to eat, that Edith needs to clean and self-medicate to keep calm, that Carrie has to stand up and dance around when she tells a joke, that Nicole must drink to contradict anyone, and that to tell the truth (or rather deliver truth bombs), Adam must adopt a cartoony accent.

Hazem Shammas, Bruce Spence, Nikita Waldron, Keegan Joyce, Sonia Todd and Amber McMahon. Photograph © Daniel Boud

On paper, it sounds as if knowing about these tics might enhance the humour in the play, and at the same time cause us to analyse and ponder the psychology of the characters, but it does the reverse. The ludicrous carry on makes the play feels less and less credible, so you care nothing for the characters even when the darker truths emerge. What’s more, the comedy derived from the device quickly runs out of steam.

With the arrival of Francis in the second act, and an inflammatory game of Charades, things hot up a bit but the outcome feels pretty predictable.

The actors all work hard and certainly perform with plenty of gusto but the humour mostly fails to land – a combination of the writing (which has been updated to include Australian references) and the heavy-handedness of the production.

After a year like 2020, I was looking forward to some ‘silly season’ comedy. What’s more, Rules for Living is STC’s first (highly welcome) post-COVID production in the Sydney Opera House. It has its moments, and a few audience members laughed along on opening night, but “frenetically funny” (as the marketing claims) it ain’t.

Rules for Living runs at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 19 December


Supported by the City of Sydney

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