Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A Small Family Business, by Alan Ayckbourn, National Theatre; reviewed by Ian Oakley

This Alan Ayckbourn revival is great fun: it is well cast, funny but also with a darker underpinning of exposing widespread crookedness.

When A Small Family Business was first performed in 1987 it was taken as a critique of the ‘Greed is Good’ era.

The fact that it feels so relevant and timely in 2014 tells you how embedded a culture of greed, corruption and double dealing has become in British public and private life.

If you doubt that just think of the lies over the Iraq War, the phone hacking cover up and the massive insurance frauds for ‘whiplash’.

The plot revolves around Jack, an honest, hardworking (in the phrase beloved of our not so hardworking politicians) family man, who takes over the running of his family’s business and is shocked to find out what is going on.

What particularly shocks him is that the double dealing and crookedness is not being done by strangers, but his own family and in-laws.

As the play progresses he is increasingly sucked into the very corruption that he sort to prevent.

The only things that date the play is the teenager daughter reading a book, whereas today she would be on her smart phone, and the fact that the family business is a furniture manufacturer; to reflect today’s deindustrialised world it would have to be a haulage firm instead.

The portrayal of some of the less conventional marriage arrangements is as funny as ever, but probably more familiar to a generation brought up on television docusoaps and BBC 3 series such as My Dominatrix Wife.

The play makes great use of the Oliver Theatre’s revolving stage. As the play opens, we see the front of a normal detached house and the set revolves to reveal the goings on within.

There is not a weak performance in the cast, but the standout actors are Nigel Lindsay in the main role as Jack and Matthew Cottle as a creepy, but highly effective, private detective.

As I left the theatre, I could not help but reflect that with the laughter there was a serious underlying point that was more effectively delivered with humour than it would have been with tragedy or outrage.

I also reflected that this is but one of seventy plays that Alan Ayckbourn, a staggering achievement that I cannot think that any other major dramatist comes close to matching.

I just hope that Sir Alan has many more plays in him.

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