Theatre Review: A Small Family Business, The National Theatre

Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken

Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken in A Small Family Business

There’s been some talk recently about whether theatres have become too reliant on old favourites rather than taking a punt of new drama. Shakespeare often has the finger pointed at him for his ubiquity, but Alan Ayckbourn is surely a contender for most (too?) often staged.

Ayckbourn, as all creative people should be, is a decisive figure, often dismissed as lightweight and twee by critics who don’t like his family-centric comedies. But he’s certainly a hit with the late middle aged home counties set, who within mainstream theatre at least, usually make up the largest chunk of the audience, so each Ayckbourn is a bums-on-seat cert.

While not being – quite yet – in my late middle-age, I for one have always rather enjoyed – admittedly through half closed-eyes – his over-the-top family farces that border on the distasteful.

A Small Family Business, widely-regarded as one of Ayckbourn’s best and more biting plays, premiered at the National Theatre in 1987 and returns to the Olivier with a grand set and a solid unstarry cast. The production keeps the 80s setting, so we get some ironic 21st century wink-wink moments about CD players, but on the whole, with its themes of greed and self-interest, this is an era-transcending play.

It’s the story of Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay), a good man with morals so rigid that his wife, Poppy (Debra Gillett) is constantly bumping her head on them in an attempt to keep him and their two daughters in the style they have become accustomed to. He’s just been recruited into his in-laws furniture firm to help re-address its recent misfortunes and soon discovers that he is an island of integrity amongst a sea of fraud and greed. Will Jack throw his good guy towel into the immoral ring or stick to his principles? As an Ayckbourn play it’s unlikely to end with everyone happy…

The play is a long one and while it smoulders amiably, it never really catches fire. The problem I found with A Small Family Business was that it felt, well, rather small. The Olivier theatre is a huge space to fill, both physically and historically, and this production felt a little lost in its hallow walls.  Tim Hatley’s elaborate set didn’t help; the suburban house that stood in for all the characters’ homes looked impressive – it’s bigger and probably sturdier than my flat – but it rather stole the show, swamping the cast and and creating some problematic blind spots. I’m used to watching plays behind pillars and through rails, but one of the Olivier’s great bonuses is its democratic seating; you can usually see as well in the gods as you can in the front row.

A Small Family Business is billed as a black comedy, although it brings into light relief the gruesomeness of human nature too vividly to be truly funny. There were noticeably few laughs throughout this production; the S&M jokes went down like a deflated  blow-up doll, whether they went over the audience’s head or, as I think, because they got rather lost in the hullabaloo.

There is much to admire about the production, the choreography of the staging and the understated acting in what is a less than subtle satire on Thatcher-era avarice. Nigel Lindsay is a captivating, impressive Jack and the other actors are accomplished more overblown foils to his solid presence.  Matthew Cottle as Benedict Hough, the private investigate brought in by Jack to save the family business only to then try and sabotage it, was genuinely creepy as the plot reached it high-pitched crescendo.

The National’s A Small Family Business was still in the preview stage when I saw it and will no doubt have some its bagginess tightened by press night. It’s a good, solid production with plenty of enthusiasm that just doesn’t feel quite big and fresh enough.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Theatre Review: Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter Theatre; Hay Fever by Noel Coward, Noel Coward Theatre

There are so many parallels between Absent Friends and Hay Fever that there were times watching the latter (I saw it a couple of weeks after AF) that I wondered where the 70s kaftans were. The spirit of Coward is as much a guest at Ayckbourn’s black comedy as the six characters on stage.

Both plays revolve around awkward house parties and revel in the humorous fallout of painful human relationships. They’re both heavy with toe-curling pauses (it’s appropriate that AF played at the Harold Pinter Theatre, named after the king of the pregnant pause) and all-too real foot-in-mouth moments. The results are often hilarious and frequently embarrassing.

AF is set in the brown-tinted 70s as a group of middle class friends come together at on-the-edge Diana (pitch-perfectly played by Katherine Parkinson) and her throw-back chauvinist husband Paul’s house as they gather to show their support over tea and trifle to their supposedly close pal Colin who moved away only tragically lose his fiancé in a drowning accident. The opening awkward scene – heavy with bitterness and paranoia – between the unhappy Diana and the sullen, taciturn mum Evelyn (played with the perfect balance of sympathy and menace by Kara Tointon) who Diana is convinced her husband is having an affair with, sets the tone for the rest of the play. The arrival of Marge and her new shoes only stirs up the drama, and, with it the laughs. Elizabeth Berrington is deliciously funny as the childless mother hen with a knack for putting those ugly wedges in her mouth.

The bubbling despair  – and with it the squirm factor – boils over with the arrival of Colin (Reece Shearsmith) and his photo albums – who, despite his recent trauma, is the only contented character on stage. I found myself laughing to the point of tears at a particularly inappropriate Marge comment before realising I was guffawing at a tragic death and someone’s grief. Feeling conflicted I tried to rearrange my features into a more sombre façade.  An emotional conflict that Ayckbourn would no doubt be happy with.

HF doesn’t throw up the same conundrums. Set in the 1920s during a weekend at an English country house, the laughs are more straightforward, arising from the unpleasantness of the Bliss family and the class clash between the boho hosts and their more conventional weekend guests. Lindsay Duncan has rightly been lauded for her role as Judith Bliss, a former actress whose life remains one long performance. It’s a role that could easily slip into overdramatic campness, but Duncan veers towards underplaying her which only enhances Judith’s melodrama. Under the shadow of such a mother and a boorish, disinterested father (Kevin R McNally) their daughter Sorrell struggles to encourage herself and her self-obsessed family to be more polite and normal. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s performance is both snortingly funny and rather touching while Freddie Fox as her spoilt brat brother Simon inhabits his role as easily as a 1920s smoking jacket. Jeremy Northam – who I’ve only ever seen doing borderline-gruff –  proves a fine comic actor in his role as fusty diplomat Richard. In fact the only cast member who doesn’t quite fit is the usually brilliant Olivia Coleman who barely stretches her considerable acting chops as glamorous Myra Arundel.  But I think she was the only one in the theatre who was bored at this fizzing adaptation of Coward’s sharply observed script.

by Suzanne Elliott