A Small Family Business – July 2014

Experience: 9/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Adam Penford

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Saturday 5th July 2014

Nice to see this one again. We saw the original National production in 1987, and the revival at Chichester in 2000; both were good, but this was probably our favourite. The individual performances were all excellent, and with several Ayckbourn regulars in the cast they brought out the humour perfectly. Overall I felt this was a lighter version of the play; the story became a bit darker towards the end, but it wasn’t as dark as either of the earlier productions.

The set helped. The Olivier stage was filled with a large two-storey detached brick-built house. The central gabled section held the front door, while the two side ‘wings’ were slightly recessed. There was a twisted topiary pot on either side of the front door, a low box hedge ran round the front walls, and the curved sections of lawn on either side of the paved path were immaculately trimmed. Smaller houses were visible behind this one, giving a sense of perspective to the estate. The sky was projected onto a screen above these distant houses, and occasionally showed clouds scudding across the sky to denote the passing of time. The curtains were drawn at all the windows, and we could just see the lights behind them in some of the rooms.

The whole house was on the revolve, and as it started to move, we could see a woman peering out from behind the curtains in one of the front rooms. When the house came to rest we could see a large sitting room front and left, kitchen on the right with a side door, bedroom upstairs front left and the bathroom front right. The hall was quite large, with stairs on the right, and the back right room appeared to be the dining room. There were two further bedrooms at the front of the house, but we never saw those.

This set served for all the houses in the story, though at the beginning and end it was the home of the McCrackens. Jack McCracken was about to arrive back from his final day at whatever business he had been in, before starting a new job as CEO of his father-in-law’s business, Ayres and Graces, a furniture manufacturer. The rest of the family were lurking in the house ready to spring a surprise party on him, so his preference for having sex with his wife Poppy was a bit unfortunate. He did still have some clothes on when he came into the sitting room, so it wasn’t long before he was decent again and making a little speech about trust and integrity and suchlike things.

Having nailed his principles to the mast in that opening scene, it wasn’t long before Jack’s world started falling apart. First there was Sammy, his teenage daughter, who had been caught shoplifting by a sleazy private investigator called Hough (pronounced Huff). He was a creepy individual, and managed, without actually appearing to lose the moral high ground, to propose ‘losing’ the case against Sammy in return for gainful employment at Ayres & Graces. Jack’s attempt to stand his ground was undermined by the revelations made by Ken Ayres, Jack’s father-in-law and founder of the furniture business. Some Italian company was ripping off copies of Ayres & Graces designs and selling them at higher prices! (Apparently the Italian label commanded a premium.) With the need for a private investigator now pressing, Jack was able to resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction, or so he thought.

Hough was very efficient. Creepily efficient, in fact. Before the weekend was over, he had uncovered more information about the family’s affairs than the security services gather from Facebook and Google in a month. As the details emerged, Jack’s attempts to maintain his integrity and return the company to an honest footing led him deeper into the mire, and when his wife and daughters presented him with a fait accompli, he finally succumbed. As he dressed for another surprise party, this time Ken’s 75th, the difference became apparent. The sharp suit, the cuff links and the cheek kisses he gave his brother all marked him out as the new head of the Family, and the play ended with Jack watching over the happy celebrations downstairs while Sammy, up in the bathroom, was deeply troubled by the preceding events.

Despite these darker aspects, there was a great deal of humour and some huge laughs from the audience. I particularly liked Hough’s arrival in a thunderstorm, with flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder just as the door was opened. And Jack’s response to a noise from the kitchen when he was trying to ‘compensate’ Hough for being fired prematurely was hilarious as well as messy. The Psycho-like events in the bathroom were surprisingly funny as was the mass of blue smoke pouring out of the Lancashire hot-pot when it came out of the oven, and there were plenty of good lines along the way.

The change in social attitudes was also interesting, though I find it hard to put my feelings on this subject into words. Back in 1987, I do remember finding this naked acceptance of greed and theft somewhat unsettling. Today it didn’t feel so near the knuckle; whether that’s due to the passage of time – the play was still set in 1987 – or greater experience on my part I don’t know. Certainly the cultural changes that were happening at that time were rapid and unexpected, and perhaps we were more in shock than I realised back then. In any case, the play has definitely survived the passing years well, and deserves regular revivals in my view.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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