A Small Family Business*** (National Theatre, Olivier)

Posted: May 13, 2014 in Theatre

225450_2_previewThe exterior of a modern double-fronted executive home occupying the entire stage is an imposing sight on entering the Olivier. Then the lights dim, the stage revolves and the whole of Act I takes place indoors. At the interval, the exterior re-appears and then revolves out of sight at the start of Act II, never to be seen again. So why is the National Theatre, which is subsidised out of public funds, wasting money and manpower resources on building a set, for which every one of hundreds of bricks is painted meticulously, when it is not even used in the course of the play? Notwithstanding this, there are no gripes about the ingenious six-room interior set, which trebles up to be three different homes with several scenes taking place concurrently, typical of the style of this play’s writer, Alan Ayckbourn. It was written in the mid-198os and performed on this same stage, with Michael Gambon in the lead, in 1987. It is a satire on greed, materialism and corruption in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, telling how Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay), an upright and totally honest man, takes over a family business from his retiring father-in-law only to find it riddled with criminal malpractices. At first he stands firm and tries to uphold his standards of morality and decency, but he finds himself getting sucked more and more into the mire. The satire is just as biting and relevant now as it was in the 1980’s, but, somehow the play does not seem as consistently funny as it did back then. Ayckbourn built his reputation on his ability to make astute observations on the lifestyles and language of middle class Britain, so can it be that British society has changed in ways that make the playwright’s characters less readily identifiable? If so, then the play will have lost some of the humour arising from recognition of people and situations and, as Ayckbourn’s writing contains little wit of other kinds, it is funny only intermittently and just mildly amusing for the rest of the time. More Ayckbourn is lined up for next week, so it will be interesting to see whether this view holds or is refuted. Adam Penford’s direction, with a capable, non-starry cast, is slick and entertaining. It is difficult to pinpoint anything seriously wrong with this production, except that it never really catches fire.

Performance date: 13 May 2014

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