When the National Theatre decided to resuscitate Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy, first staged a few months before 1987’s Black Monday, they must have thought they were in for a sure thing. After all, the play did nicely the first time around and is a comment on greed, the pervasive scamming and fraud in Britain and our terribly materialistic world. What’s not to like? So I fear they might not be prepared for the reception to this version directed by Adam Penford.
A Small Family Business opens with a funny and embarrassing surprise party, where Jack McCracken is welcomed into the family business as the new CEO of Ayres & Graces, the company founded by his wife’s father now suffering from dementia. Entrusted with the task of reviving the faltering furniture business, Jack vows to return the company to profitability by bringing back “basic trust”. Jack is earnest and determined but he hasn’t taken into account his extended family.
Unfortunately for Jack, his family is corrupt and dishonest and, when his own daughter is apprehended for shoplifting, Jack is manipulated into endorsing a blackmail deal that will be his undoing. Soon the whole lot, save for the doddering father, have been exposed as pilfers, adulterers, criminals and idiots. Even his brother has profited from stealing from his own family business. None of them seem to care for anything other than clothes, cars and jewellery. Never bought full price, of course. Everything is for sale, just name your price.
As you can expect, Jack is dragged down to their level as one crime only leads to another, until the inevitable happens. Mr Ayckbourn seems to be saying that even with the strongest moral convictions, people can’t stand-up to corruption when it has become woven into the fabric of society. I would add that in Mr Aycbourne’s world version, men are manipulated by schemingly clever women who get them to do just about anything they want. “Just wait, he’ll come around” seems to be a refrain.
It is possible that in some other version, this play might be funny but that is not the case here. The set, by Tim Hatley, is a fantastic two-level house, giving us a view of six rooms and allowing for quasi-simultaneous scenes happening on different floors. For some incomprehensible reason, however, the acting is very heightened and the slapstick often falls completely flat. The tone and accent of this very British family appeared to be much more “white trash” than middle class suburban, as was the case in the original play. The horrible costumes, possibly created to bring to mind the Alexis Carrington 80s, are just plain tacky and much less glamorous.
Ultimately, there is much physical comedy that brings no laughter and poor Amy Marston, as Harriet Ayres, must pop out of the small opening between the dinning room and kitchen on too many unfunny instances that you feel for her by the end. That being said, Nigel Lindsay is very good as the earnest and optimistic Jack McCracken. But did he need to don the Mafioso suit and plant kisses on both cheeks by the end. I think we got the point. Jack’s bossy dominatrix sister-in-law, Niky Wardley, gives a winning performance while the remaining cast try their energetic best to make this play seem alive for the 21st century. Alice Sykes, who plays Jack’s daughter Samantha, should be singled out for giving one of the best interpretations of a teenager on the London stage at the moment. And I should know, I currently have one at home.