Thursday, 1 May 2014

Review: A Small Family Business

Alan Ayckbourn is one of Britain's most prolific playwrights and yet I'd never seen one of his plays until last weekend. Weird. He's also one of those playwrights who doesn't explicitly 'do' politics, and thus does it much better than many who do.

A Small Family Business, playing at the National Theatre, is one of the moral comedies that Ayckbourn is famous for. It tells the story of Jack McCracken, a straightforward, honest family man who takes over his father in law's struggling furniture business with the aim of making honesty the central principle of the way it's run. It's not long until he discovers that his entire family, who all have stakes in the business, are on the take and even have connections to the Mafia. The story tracks the hugely likable Jack in his descent from being genuinely outraged at his family's actions to ultimately being complicit in, and reaping the rewards of, them.

The plot is admittedly slightly predictable. In an early fit of outrage at his family for apparently thinking that stealing is acceptable, Jack says the line: "Thou shalt not kill. What about that then? Let’s have a crack at that one next, shall we?" From that point on, you know where the play is ultimately headed. But for all that it's still supremely - and darkly - enjoyable.

Nigel Lindsay stars as Jack and he is superb. His early play Jack is a lovable, funny and slightly bumbling character whose warmth and energy make him hard to dislike. By the end of the play he has transformed into a Mafia Don-esque figure, sinister and ruthless. Lidsay's performance makes the transformation subtle and believable, something you only really realise is so shocking when reflecting on the play after it's ended. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent too - I particularly liked Debra Gillett as Jack's scatty-but-actually-quite-manipulative wife and Stephen Beckett as his wideboy brother-in-law Cliff.

The staging here also deserves a special mention. Set on the Olivier stage's famous revolve, the NT have built a house. A lifesize, depressingly anonymous house with working plumbing in some rooms. This one house set serves as all of the different character's houses and is the only scenery in the production. It's fantastically effective - both as a feat of scene building and a way of conveying the sameness of the Thatcherite dream that all of the characters aspire to.

Because ultimately that's what this play is about. Jack is seduced and corrupted by the 'greed is good' mentality of that period of history (the play was first performed - in the Olivier - in 1987). He is prepared to overlook and then participate in his family's actions because they make money and enable them all to live the lifestyle that they so covet. 

It's a very, very funny play, but thinking on it afterwards you realise how depressing a lot of the stuff you've been laughing at is. To use a quote that Ayckbourn himself is apparently rather fond of, overheard from an audience member after one of his plays: “If I’d known what I was laughing at when I was laughing, I wouldn’t have laughed.”

This is definitely one to put on your cultural agenda (I'm sure all my readers have such things). If you can't make it to the NT in person, the production is getting the NT Live treatment on June 12th.

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