The extremely prolific playwright, Alan Ayckbourn always has a streak of grey running through his plays, but A Small Family Business, written specifically for The National’s Olivier Theatre in 1987 and now being revived in that same space, has an enormous band of black. As usual when watching an Ayckbourn play we laugh because the brilliance of his dialogue ensures we do, but here the laughter could easily be followed by the question, “is it morally wrong to find humour in something so dark”?
The play’s themes are corruption and greed, prevalent in the Thatcherite Eighties and not exactly absent nowadays. It centres around the extended Ayres family who run a furniture business. The founding member, Ken, in the early stages of dementia, appoints his son-in-law Jack McCracken to take over as Managing Director. Jack is determined to introduce a regime of total honesty; no stealing of paper clips now that he is at the helm, and he leaves us in no doubt that he is a man of high moral fibre. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the rest of the family. They have all been on the take for years (some more than the others) and make no bones about the fact that Jack’s whiter than white stance is a source of much irritation and incomprehension. As Poppy McCracken says, “fiddling’s not dishonest – it’s just a little fuzzy around the edges”. Unfortunately for Jack his honesty changes from white to a murky shade of grey as soon as the shop lifting exploits of his teenage daughter results in him becoming entangled with the private detective who helps to get her off the charge. He is forced to employ this creepy and incredibly seedy private eye to investigate the family business and a tsunami of corruption ensues, turning the light hearted beginning into something far, far darker.
The performances for the most part are excellent, with Nigel Lindsay in top form in the role of Jack, effortlessly turning from honest and decent to ruthless and somewhat sinister. Poppy, his giddy wife, is beautifully played by Debra Gillett, whilst Niky Wardley is extremely funny as her oversexed sister-in-law, Anita. Coincidentally, Nigel Lindsay and Niky Wardley were both equally brilliantly cast in The Donmar’s recent production of The Same Deep Water As Me. Benedict Hough, the private investigator made my flesh creep, which obviously means that his portrayal by Matthew Cottle is spot on.
Much of Ayckbourn’s skill is the ever ingenious way he has of staging his often complicated plot lines and this play is no exception. The Designer, Tim Hatley gives us a revolving 3D house, both exterior and interior, and this soulless two-storey suburban “box” is used for the homes of all the main characters. This ensures that the story can seamlessly play out at exactly the same time in various locations.
Adam Penford, has done a sterling job with this revival of one of Ayckbourn’s least lovable plays, not the easiest task when you’re following in the footsteps of the great man himself who directed the piece back in 1987.