Sam Holcroft’s unique play explores the rules and strategies we all impose on ourselves in life. Actress Laura Rogers explains

AT FIRST, the premise of Rules for Living sounds all-too familiar. An extended family meets up at Christmas. Drinks flow, turkey is served and damaging personality traits gradually emerge. We’ve all been there. “Every character in the play starts on their best behaviour,” says Laura Rogers. “But as the day goes by it develops into chaos.”

The difference with Rules for Living, as opposed to your standard family-based comedydrama, is that each character’s individual flaws and habits are displayed via large monitors above the stage. Each person has their own rule for living, which they act out after the message has flashed onto the screen. When the screen reads, “Matthew must sit to tell a lie”, for instance, he does just that. “Nicole must drink to contradict”, is another example.

This method reiterates the predictability of human behaviour, in a way, which is made plain every Christmas when families come together. As Rogers says: “Every year you think this Christmas might be different. But then it’s not.” The actress, who has appeared in many Shakespeare plays as well as on television in Bad Girls, The Sins and Holby City, says the “artificial atmosphere” of the festive season may bring about the tension that often marks the period. “Everyone is trying not to do the thing they always do on Christmas and to make sure it all goes smoothly. But there is a lot of alcohol involved and potentially clashing personalities.”

Rules for Living was written by Sam Holcroft and premiered at the National Theatre in London, with Stephen Mangan and Miles Jupp in the cast. Holcroft’s writing has been compared to that of legendary playwright Alan Ackybourn, whose work often focuses on human interaction and the schisms that can open up in relationships. His trilogy of plays The Norman Conquests, which explores those very themes, is currently showing at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Rogers says it is ambiguous as to whether the rules in Holcroft’s play are imposed by the characters themselves or a higher force that makes them act in a certain way. Possibly the answer is both.

“I think it’s a chicken-egg scenario," says Rogers. "A personality trait is always there and that’s the thing they lean on when they are threatened. It’s the barrier they put up. For my character, it’s alcohol she goes to. Whether the drink fuels an argumentative side she already has, or whether it creates that personality trait, is a different question.”

So, when the screen says “Nicole must drink to contradict”, we know an argument is on the way, but it might be purely the drink leading her to that point. Humorously, Rogers’ on-stage husband’s habit is taking on various accents. “It’s a way of covering up what he’s really feeling,” says Rogers. “It really irritates my character.” Whether we like it or not, the actress is right when she says that “we all recognise that we all have our little rules that we follow”. 

Whether these rules are a force for good or bad is another issue entirely. From hearing Rogers speak, you get the impression that the strategies employed by the characters in Rules for Living are more detrimental than constructive. Is there any hope for the family unit in the play?

“Well, some people learn from their rules and some don’t,” she says. “Some might never change the things they lean on. It’s sad, in a way, because I don’t know how much hope there is for this family. “Certain revelations come out between characters where you think, ‘I’m not sure how that can be mended’. It’s about how they move forward with all that knowledge, if they do at all.” Rogers herself has a regular Christmas routine, travelling to Wales to visit family. While she says that she generally has a lovely time, she admits to reverting to a childhood role when she meets her parents.

“There’s something about going back to the family that makes you play a certain character. It could be the joker, the one who gets drunk, the baby. I’m an only child and even though I’m 38-years-old now I return to the age of 12 when I go back. My mum doesn’t really see me as the age that I am. If one of us broke that system of roles that we maintain, it would feel odd. But at the same time, you’re trying to break it.”

Despite all this mild negativity towards the festive season, Rogers says the way audience members receive Rules of Living is dependent on their own feelings towards Christmas. “For lots of people it’s the best day of the year. There’s always something nice that happens, even if it’s only a good conversation with a family member.”

While we might all be cemented in our roles, there is clearly virtue in turning up to the childhood homestead year after year and trying to enjoy the day. After all, what else can you do? It’s family. 

RULES FOR LIVING, Theatre Royal Brighton, October 17 to 21, visit