A Small Family Business
Arguably our most popular and undoubtedly our most prolific contemporary dramatist, Alan Ayckbourn has now written nearly full-length 80 plays. Nearly all of them have been premiered in Scarborough, where his writing career began and where he subsequently became artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre there. But he has also had a long association with the National Theatre, and in the mid-80s took a sabbatical from Scarborough to run a company on the South Bank -- and it included the commission of a brand-new play that was unusually premiered there in 1987 rather than in Yorkshire.
Now, over a quarter of a century later, the National have entrusted rising young director Adam Penford to revive it on the same Olivier stage. It's nothing if not ambitious for him to not only follow in Ayckbourn's own footsteps as director but also to make his debut on this notoriously difficult stage. But Penford, who has past form on both comedy as the revival director of the National's One Man, Two Guvnors and previous experience of Acykbourn as staff director on Season's Greetings there, rises to the challenge beautifully.
The scale of the stage, which can often be its problem, is also its gift; it enables designer Tim Hatley to provide a life-size 3D version of a house seemingly in its entirety, from a handsome frontage that then swivels around to reveal its partial interior from downstairs lounge and kitchen to upstairs bedroom and bathroom. But director Penford manages, within this vast sense of scale, to also humanise its occupants, even as they are -- in Aycbkourn's stark, dark portrait of them -- almost all behaving badly.
Written originally as a direct response to Thatcher's years in government, with its 'greed is good' mantra, its picture of an extended family on the fiddle remains bruising as well as brilliantly funny. As Nigel Lindsay's Jack McCracken takes over the running of the family furniture business from his father-in-law Ken Ayres (Gawn Grainger), he discovers that they all engaged in scams of some kind.
In a 1997 article for The Guardian, Michael Billington named the play as one of the top ten British plays of the last century, stating that it "offers a devastating assault on the way the entrepreneurial values we were taught to admire in the eighties lead ultimately to fraud, theft, self-deceit, even homicide. It is the modern equivalent of An Inspector Calls - only, being Ayckbourn, far funnier."
I'm not sure I would place it that highly myself; but its portrait of a toxic system still has profound resonance and relevance, and it is beautifully acted here by a top-notch company that is led by Nigel Lindsay, with Ayckbourn veteran Matthew Cottle providing a hilarious and creepy performance as the private investigator Benedict Hough.
"This is a hard play to love, as Ayckbourn’s view of humanity is so dark, but it delivers both laughs and chills with great panache."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"Nigel Lindsay hits the right note, but this production lacks the farce that unlocks the pain within Alan Ayckbourn's fable."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"As the story darkens, so does Lindsay’s performance. Yet the debates about morality don’t cut deep and too many characters feel underdeveloped — some are merely cartoonish."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard