A scene from A Small Family Business. Photo: John Persson
Reviewed by James Karas
A Small Family Business is a hilarious play by Alan Ayckbourn that has been revived and is now playing on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre. The play was originally produced in 1987 (before computers and cell phones) but it has lost none of its humour and light bite that it had then.
Ken Ayres (Gawn Granger) built a fine furniture business that provided handsomely for his family. At 75, he is going potty and the business is going to pot literally and figuratively.
Ken’s son-in-law Jack (Nigel Lindsay) is appointed managing director to restore trust and order in the failing enterprise. He is capable and moral beyond reproach and no one doubts him except the audience, perhaps. When a character appears that virtuous, we start rubbing our hands in glee at the prospect of seeing his clay feet, itchy fingers, marauding hormones or any combination of vices to confirm our own moral superiority.
We quickly find out that Ken’s family is like a Middle East dictatorship in its morality and like a Balkan country in its organization and discipline. They are corrupt to the bone. (Yes, yes, there are Balkan countries and Middle East states that are models of principled behaviour and organizational integrity!)
The set for the play is the interior of a well-appointed house shown in cross-section. There are six playing areas and it is the home of several characters. The action moves seamlessly from one house to the next without any changes in the set. We understand where we are from the context. Brilliant.
Jack’s hands are full starting with a corrupt private investigator (played hilariously by Matthew Cottle) who has caught Jack’s daughter Samantha (Alice Sykes) shoplifting. He is willing to forget the whole thing if he is hired to do work for the family business. NO is the incorruptible Jack’s answer no matter what that means for his daughter.
Jack’s brother-in-law Desmond (Neal Barry) has salted away enough cash to buy a villa and a restaurant, his brother Cliff (Stephen Beckett) drives a Porsche while his wife Anita (Niky Wardley) has a wardrobe to compete Coco Chanel’s and employees four Italian studs who pay retail prices for her favours and wholesale for what the family business produces.
Niky Wardley - Anita McCracken. Photo Johan Persson
With this much fun, you will not be surprised to find bribery, extortion, corruption, infidelity, dishonesty, fraud….have I missed anything?
Ayckbourn’s comedy is based on the interesting characters and often mild caricatures that he creates, on situations, of course, and a plotline that is fast-moving, entertaining, and exaggerated but with a serious side to it. He is a magician of comedy.
Director Adam Penford maintains the pacing and the timing of the performance with precision. The characters are funny. The demented Ken, the slutty Anita, the gorging Desmond, the anorexic Harriet (Amy Marston), the four Italian brothers who will come in handy to do what Italians do best (hint: was 1987 around the time of The Godfather movies?). I don’t want to give the entire plot away, not that the play is not funny even if you see it for a second or third time.
You will laugh out loud and enjoy a fine play with a moral twist almost attached to it. Next time you pocket that pen at the office or grab a couple of paper clips from work to take home, you may have second thoughts about it.
A Small Family Business by Alan Ayckbourn opened on April 8 and continues in repertory until August 27, 2014 on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk