The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is the third largest, annual performing arts celebration of its kind in the world, as well as being Australia’s biggest.

Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2016, this year the event takes place over four jam – packed weeks, from March 29 to April 23.

With more than five hundred different entertainment options available, these choices include art exhibitions, cabaret, competitions, debates, improvisation, kids’ comedy, musicals, sketch shows, song cycles, theatre, and traditional stand – up. Put simply, there is something on offer for everyone.

In 2017, Red Stitch Theatre enters the fray for the first time with a must – see family outing from Great Britain.

Established in 2001, the award – winning collective is known for presenting both thought – provoking and dynamic plays.  Past acclaimed works by the independent company include ‘The Honey Bees’, ‘Jumpers For Goalposts’, and ’The Pride’.

Premiering at London’s National Theatre in 2015, ’Rules For Living’ is by the up – and – coming English playwright, Sam Holcroft.

Holcroft’s tertiary education background is especially fascinating, combining biology with an extracurricular interest in drama. While studying at the University of Edinburgh, she spent time essentially dashing between the science lab and the campus theatre, scripting and producing her own shows. Soon, taking a year away from science, Holcroft happily received her first theatrical commission.

Agonising between both career streams, that grant gave her the emotional and financial push she needed to permanently pursue writing full – time. It was the right decision.

Holcroft’s solid resume since includes ‘Cockroach’, ’Edgar And Annabel’ ‘The House Taken Over’, ’The Wardrobe’, ‘Vanya’, and ’While You Lie’. She is also the 2014 drama category winner of the Windham – Campbell Literature Prize. Valued at $150,000, it is one of the largest global awards of its kind.

The story behind ‘Rules For Living’ is particularly intriguing, in that its premise draws on Holcroft’s personal interest in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). By definition, CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps patients to change unhelpful or unhealthy habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. Further, the writer gives her study a highly – relatable twist, setting ‘Rules For Living’ at a tense family Christmas lunch.

The festive season is a popular launching pad for many character – driven stories.

Motion pictures like ‘Pieces Of April’, ‘Soul Food’, ‘The Family Stone’, ‘What’s Cooking’ and ‘Home For The Holidays’ take dissimilar personalities and squeeze them all under the one roof. If nothing else, to unmask false realities, tell tales out of school, or bring burning grievances to the table. We have all been there!

However, ‘Rules For Living’ adds a more satirical approach to activate these emotional time bombs. For here, what is said versus what is thought are two entirely different beasts.

Directed with manic aplomb by Kim Farrant, the show almost appears to use reality television as a backdrop to the unfolding drama. Monster hits like ‘Big Brother’, ‘Married At First Sight’ and ‘Master Chef’ deliberately create conflict between contestants to hook viewers and boost ratings. It is that simple.

Thanks to the theatre’s intimate space, audience members not only sit on top of the action, the production builds along the same voyeuristic lines as a live studio recording.

Holcroft’s characters all carry idiosyncrasies that, when provoked, send them into battle – mode against each other.  Thanks to the actors’ full commitment to their respective roles, on the one hand ‘Rules For Living’ feels like it isn’t scripted at all, but being played out in real time. Alternately, the performers behave like rats trapped inside a bizarre laboratory experiment.

With a running time of three hours (including a thirty – minute interval), the satisfaction in watching this fiendish tale unfold is not knowing exactly what is going to happen next. It is even harder to guess if Holcroft is either a happy advocate or staunch opponent of CBT. Without giving too much away, perhaps one can surmise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Working as a cohesive ensemble, the expert acting team includes Rory Kelly and Mark Dickinson as adult sibling rivals, Jessica Clarke and Jem Nicholas as their respective partners, and Caroline Lee and Ian Rooney as the boys’ domineering parents. Thanks to a clearly – delineated back story, it is well understood by the show’s mid – point that each participant has their own cross to bear. In a quirky nod to the likes of Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter, their characters’ actions are also dictated by specific parameters set by the writer.

Stylish technical support gives this special experience a heightened sense of atmosphere. From the wry middle – class kitchen set and defined costume design by Sophie Woodward, to Clare Springett’s smart lighting effects and Daniel Nixon’s plush sound, not a single element feels out of place. Shae Attril’s production management makes sure that the escalating pace is never less than drill – sergeant perfect.

This is a highly complex play, driven by both emotional sparring and key technical cue points, for which the entire Red Stitch team must be congratulated.

Running for a strictly limited five week season, ‘Rules For Living’ is an absolute winner. Don’t miss out!

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