A SMALL FAMILY BUSINESS
National Theatre in the Olivier
Spoilers have been kept to a minimum; this piece refers to the second preview of the production.
This is one of Ayckbourn's most cutting comedies. First staged here in 1987, it was widely seen then as an allegory of Thatcherite values. It has lost none of its bite – a quarter of a century on sleaze, greed, corruption and the breakdown of morality are just as prevalent in our “all in it together” society.
The family firm that the playwright imagines are all in it for what they can get out of it. All except Jack, a man of principle, who takes over from his ailing father-in-law at the helm of Ayres and Graces, makers of fine furniture and fitted kitchens.
As the drama unfolds, each member of his family is revealed as, more or less, morally bankrupt, though surrounded by status symbols and conspicuous consumption. Starting with stroppy teenager Sammy, whose shoplifting starts it all, revealed when a sleazy, creepy inspector calls ...
Tim Hatley's suburban façade is clearly not a real house – something from a child's book, or an artist's impression: too regular, too cleanly detailed. The same holds true for the interior, its well-appointed rooms doing duty for all the family houses. That's about as far as the dramatic trickery goes here; some simultaneous scenes in Act II. Time passes, and there are great clouds blowing. There's a serving hatch, of course, and an overdone hotpot, though, inevitably, it takes time for the olfactory evidence to reach the back of the circle.
Director Adam Penford gives us some wonderful set pieces, some fine farcical moments, including the excruciating opening scene, and there are strong performances all round. Ayckbourn is unrivalled as a writer of truly awful characters, and they are brought to very believable life here, though, perhaps with the passage of time, many of them seem a little like stock stereotypes.
Nigel Lindsay is Jack, who rallies his troops with talk of trust, but is drawn slowly but surely into the web of bribes and “business deals”. Good work too from Gawn Grainger, no less, as the increasingly confused paterfamilias. Alice Sykes as Samantha, Stephen Beckett as the odious Cliff and Neal Barry as Des, “more than half nancy” who spends all his time in the kitchen and dreams of running a restaurant on Minorca.
Benedict Hough, the “eminently corruptible” private investigator, is brilliantly brought to life by Matthew Cottle. His voice, his body language make him a loathsome figure, but very funny too. I shall long remember him prowling ominously round the empty rooms.
Ayckbourn writes superbly for his women, and here we have eating disorders [Amy Marston's Harriet] and “strictly amateur” S&M escort Anita [Niky Wardly], Alice Sykes's Samantha. And central to the intrigue, Jack's wife Poppy, perceptively played by Debra Gillett.
Constant reminders of the eighties, when mobile phones and CD players, very desirable novelties, were big and bulky, “bloody” was the teenage epithet of choice, and LCD watches were state of the art.
The denouement, involving a cramped Porsche, seems a little contrived, and the final tableau, though undeniably powerful, is sadly predictable.
Nonetheless, a carefully crafted, very enjoyable revival of a classic comedy of manners, as a much a moral tale for our times as it was in the days of the Big Bang and the Great Gambon.
Production photograph: Johan Persson