A Small Family Business: Articles

This section features articles about the play A Small Family Business by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors. Click on the relevant link in the right-hand column below to access the relevant article.

The playwright Mark Ravenhill has frequently discussed how influential Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business was to his writing career. Here he discusses the play during 2014.

A Change of Culture

As a child I lived in Haywards Heath in West Sussex. A neat suburban home in a cul de sac called Courtlands. My parents had moved into the house as a 'new build' in 1966, the year that I was born. Most of our relatives lived in council housing, still widely considered a 'respectable' and 'sensible' way to live. So when my mother confided to one of her friends that she and my father were taking on a mortgage and moving to Haywards Heath she was told 'Oh that's posh'.

One of the signs of Haywards Heath's 'poshness' could be seen every morning at the railway station. Waiting on the platform for the commuter train that would take them in to the City were rows of men. They all looked identical: pin stripe suit, umbrella hooked over one arm, briefcase in the opposite hand and - most incongruously of all - a bowler hat on their head. Long after the sexual and social revolution of the 1960s, and even after the punk explosion of the mid 1970s, there were still thousands of men standing there every morning on Haywards Heath station looking just like Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks or Magritte's surreal business men. These men were, it seemed, the epitome of poshness and probity but also of continuity. They had been there since the Edwardians and they'd be there for at least another hundred years.

I graduated from university in June 1987, by coincidence just a couple of days after
A Small Family Business opened in the Olivier. Ambitious for a career in the theatre, I moved to London. The deregulation of the financial market the year before had rapidly put the City at the centre of global capital and the new men - and even a few women - of the banking sector were young, brash, flashy. The men in bowler hats had disappeared.

And in the theatre there had been a rapid change of culture. I looked at photos of my new colleagues, pictures taken only a couple of years before. They looked like the hippies of 1968. But now all the talk in theatre was of fundraising and marketing. My colleagues were getting haircuts and wearing sharper clothes. Wanting to fit in with the crowd, I made a purchase with my first wage packet. A Filofax. This strange little diary-cum-filing system was the thing I wanted to be seen carrying at all times. It signified that you were ready, that you were energetic, that you meant business.

I realised that Britain (or at least my bit in the south) had transformed in just the few years that I'd been away at university. The old values of steadiness, stuffiness, continuity, consensus, respectability, not showing off - none of which had ever been very attractive to me growing up - were now more or less gone. There was a new energy driving us all. But we couldn't quite say what it was yet. It was certainly good to have the old boys' network disrupted but there was also something destructive, selfish even nihilistic about the new spirit of the times.

Theatre is often great at articulating those moments when a society has created a new energy that it hasn't yet defined. For me that moment of articulation, of realising what it felt like to be experiencing the fresh new winds of the1980s, came when I saw Ayckbourn's play in the Olivier in September 1987. Reading the play again now it's amazing to me to see how much of that evening I've retained. I can still hear the inflections and cadences of most of the actors and can see in my mind's eye many of the stage pictures.

I don't remember laughing much during the performance in 1987, although there were plenty of people rolling in the aisles with delight. But I do remember being gripped by the relentless logic of the plotting, of the steady revelation of corrosive corruption and of the sense that a family who were not unlike my own were in fact no better than organised criminals. And I remember going outside on to the Olivier terrace after the curtain call and sobbing. And then booking to see the production twice more.

Speaking at the Institute for New Economic Thinking in Bretton Woods New Hampshire in 2011, Gordon Brown reflected on the failings of a financial system which both Conservative and New Labour governments have failed to adequately regulate:
'We didn't understand the entanglements of different institutions with each other and we didn't understand even though we talked about it about it how global things are, including a shadow banking system as well as a banking system. That was our mistake but I'm afraid it was a mistake made by just about everybody'.

'Entanglements' and the dangers of a 'shadow system' are exactly what Jack McCracken uncovers when he takes on the management of Ayres and Graces in
A Small Family Business. Ayckbourn's genius is that his play takes the form of a Feydeau farce in which characters hurtle from room to room in an attempt to hold on to their secrets. But he then mixes the farce with a conspiracy-plot thriller such as Troy Kennedy Martin's 1985 TV drama Edge of Darkness, in which the murder of his daughter leads a policeman to uncover a conspiracy of universal significance. And in creating his conspiracy thriller / farce Ayckbourn reveals a model of corrosive global entanglements. It's the perfect metaphor for a corrosive system which I'd suggest is still as much a part of our lives as it was when I first saw the play in 1987.

Copyright: Mark Ravenhill. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.