Pros: Some excellent performances, and one of the most comical opening scenes I’ve seen in a long time
Cons: Most of the characters fit so well into their roles of greedy, money-grabbing crooks it leaves you no-one to relate to or side with.
I have a bit of a strained relationship with Alan Ayckbourn. I never really know what to feel when I’m watching his plays and consequently find them rather difficult to enjoy. Famously he’s the second most performed playwright in the UK, and I’ve never really been able to grasp why that is. His plays are most often packaged as domestic comedies, deriving their humour from situations bordering on the farcical, and yet the sheer frequency with which I squirm in my seat means I can’t accept them as just that. A Small Family Business is another such play, but I think it lays its cards on the table a bit more openly. The audience is invited to watch upright members of society being corrupted by money and the greed of the eighties.
There are many things I did enjoy about the play. It starts with a truly great show of farce from Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken, as he slowly sheds his clothes unaware of the surprise party gathered in his sitting room. In fact Lindsay carries this play with great aplomb, and his fall from a man preaching integrity in business to a mafia-esque patriarch is all the more uncomfortable, yet believable, for his brilliant performance. Lindsay is ably supported by Debra Gillett as his wife, and there is a fabulous turn from Niky Wardley as his sister-in-law who romances a whole series of Italian brothers (a heavily disguised Gerard Monaco). Meanwhile, Matthew Cottle is suitably unpleasant as the private investigator, causing the skin of a thousand audience members to crawl simultaneously.
Similarly, Tim Hatley’s set is another glorious success for the National. A revolving, two-storey house full of mid-eighties design fills the stage, which is appropriate given that McCracken is taking over the family furniture business from his father-in-law. Scenes from the different family homes play out in this one set, a cute reference to formulaic nature of the furniture and lifestyle that the characters are fighting so hard to preserve.
Ultimately I think my discomfort with this play lies with the script, not this particular revival. I have no doubt that Ayckbourn seeks to give his audience some discomfort, and the violent and depressing conclusion only confirms this. He wants to make us challenge the passion that we as a society have for wealth and prosperity at the expense of society itself. I just worry the people who actually need to think about that are the same ones rolling in the aisles, laughing hysterically, not those of us who left feeling down-heartened and reminded that the world can be a bleak place.
Author: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Adam Penfold
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking Link: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-small-family-business
Booking Until: August 27th 2014