Alan Ayckbourn apparently hates being described as a political playwright but “A Small Family Business”, revived at the National Theatre 27 years after its first production there in 1987, is clearly born out of the political preoccupations of the mid-eighties. But its strength is that it transcends the politics of the time to pose absorbing ethical questions inside the framework of a very funny comedy. It’s a real achievement and this production entirely justifies the decision to revive the play.
Jack McCracken, forcefully performed by the excellent Nigel Lindsay, is the son-in-law of the owner of a small furniture business. He is invited to take over as Managing Director of the firm and soon discovers that a number of family members have found ways of siphoning off personal wealth from the firm’s products. He begins with the best of intentions to clean up the mess but ends up sucked into the moral morass one step at a time until he ends up with a world view very much at odds with the ethical stance he takes in scene 1.
First impressions are that we are about to see a very traditional comedy. The metaphorical curtain rises on the façade of a suburban house of the sort that was being built by the thousand in the 80s. Then the Olivier stage revolves to reveal the interior of the house (or houses – for the houses of all the protagonists are identical) where the action takes place. The set design allows the strands of the action taking place in different rooms of the house to run along side by side, a technique brilliantly exploited by Ayckbourn. In some ways this is the stuff of traditional farce but the humour is underpinned by a gradually darkening sense of unease as we see Jack’s moral certainties swept aside by a complicated mix of family loyalty and economic pragmatism.
Jack, and Poppy his naïve and loyal wife (played by Debra Gillett), are very much the centre of maelstrom as it gathers. Their ultra-sulky teenage daughter Samantha, well portrayed by Alice Sykes, provides the trigger that forces Jack to begin taking steps that he would prefer to avoid – each one justified as “one-off, never to be repeated”. It’s all a slippery slope that ends in a very dark hole – that is both hilarious and disturbing at the same time.
The smaller roles are universally strong. Particular praise must go to Matthew Cottle who turns the role of the private investigator into a sleaze bag who makes the flesh creep. And to Niky Wardley as a latex-clad suburban vamp whose amoral attitude to life (and transferable passion for a series of Italian lovers) disconcerts Jack and prepares the path for his descent into the moral vacuum in which the play ends.
This is the sort of production that will get better and better as the run continues and the speed of action and dialogue improves. With its combination of farce-driven humour and well dramatised moral dilemmas this play offers a lot more than the sum of its parts. Ayckbourn has now written more than 70 plays and is a supreme craftsman – A Small Family Business is one of the best.