Review: A Small Family Business, National Theatre

“Everybody else works little fiddles, because that’s what the system is designed for”

Who knows what hold Alan Ayckbourn has over the theatrical establishment but by heavens, it is a strong one. As prolific a playwright as they come, the appetite for his plays is seemingly insatiable with what must be a constant stream of productions – I imagine one would be hard-pressed to find a week where there isn’t at least one of his plays being performed somewhere in the country. But his charms have never really worked on me, it is with a heavy heart that I hear there’s a new Ayckbourn somewhere with a cast I can’t resist (although I did only see one of his plays last year) and this time round, it is all Nigel Lindsay’s fault.

A Small Family Business is a 1987 play that was hailed as a searching examination of how Thatcherite values eroded societal links through the experience of one man realising that the family furniture business he has inherited is rife with corruption. But in 2014 it feels a little neutered, what once might have appeared daring has been nullified by a quarter century of rapacious capitalism and so what is left is the well-trodden farcical shenanigans that Ayckbourn loves so much, accompanied by an attempt at a darker side that sits very awkwardly indeed with the dated comedy.

I should start by admitting that I did laugh. Twice in fact – the first being in the predictable but extremely well-executed opening scene where Lindsay’s Jack McCracken arrives home of a mood to jump on his wife and is down to his boxers by the time he realises she has put on a surprise party for him. And the second was with a surreal mention of Kendal mint cake, which is still making me giggle now but by and large, the comedy is very laboured due to the foisting of a quirk on each character in place of anything resembling a personality. Therefore it all becomes quite limited – for example, if you don’t find early-onset dementia funny, then Gawn Grainger’s Ken will be lost on you. 

Some performances transcend the material though. Lindsay – sadly not in his riding boots – gives a sterling account of a decent man slowly transmuted into a Corleone-esque totemic figure (those braces, mmm mmm). And Niki Wardley’s wonderfully self-possessed Anita rises gloriously above the indignities of being put in S&M gear (“if it’s a farce, then we MUST have a woman in her underwear”) as one of the sharpest brains in this extended family who are all on the take. Adam Penfold’s production doesn’t quite do enough to enliven the show as a whole though, such an indulgent running time would make even the best-scripted comedy seem flabby.

Throw in a most bizarre response to the darkest of deeds (in the bathroom no less), and a ham-fisted attempt at seriousness in the final moments (far too little, too late), and I have to say this really wasn’t my cup of tea. Then again, was it ever going to be? I’d rather test my assumptions regularly than simply sit atop grand pronouncements and it may well be I never become an Ayckbourn fan – I would like to know that I have tried though. With that in mind, Billington complains that the National have either cast too many comedians or too many ‘serious’ actors in their attempts to stage Ayckbourn, one might ask should it really be this difficult to get it right if the plays were honestly good enough to stand the test of time? 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 27th August

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