A Small Family Business: Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

This page contains an interview with Alan Ayckbourn by his archivist Simon Murgatroyd to tie in with the National Theatre's revival of the play in 2014.

Simon Murgatroyd:
A Small Family Business originally premiered at the National Theatre in 1987, what are your thoughts on the play now?
Alan Ayckbourn:
A Small Family Business tends to be seen as quite a big play - and in terms of cast and staging for me, it is - but the actual play is not that big actually. It’s a little morality tale, which is how the National Theatre’s then Artistic Director Peter Hall originally described it when I first sent it to him.
I remember, I was in a dressing room at the National Theatre talking to an actor before the show during its original run and there was a platform talk taking place on the set of
A Small Family Business. A very learned academic was addressing the play and its themes; his thesis was the play covered every single one of the seven deadly sins - lust, avarice, anger, greed etc. I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t set out to do that, but it’s an interesting - and valid - idea.’

What inspired you to write the play?
People have subsequently said I was attacking Thatcher’s state, but I was attacking society really. A Small Family Business was inspired by a feeling that I had - and I think many others at the time too - that with the slow erosion of organised religion or any agreed moral codes, many of us were tending to make up our own moral code and that was quite dangerous. Without anything to guide you, you start putting sub-clauses in: thou shalt not steal (except…); thou shalt not kill (except…). I just thought we were all putting caveats into our lives, the way we lived, and one man’s caveat is another man’s complete shock and horror!

Was this your personal experience at the time?
I remember I was sitting in the theatre’s green room once and in the space of ten minutes, an actor declared it was perfectly in order to steal food if you were hungry. Someone else replied, ‘what does that do to the price of beans, because if you steal a lot them, the prices shoot up.'
From there, somebody else said - and it really did create controversy - that it was alright to steal books from bookshops because books contain knowledge and there was an obligation for everyone to have knowledge - also a good collection of illicitly gained novels presumably!
Throughout this conversation, I was thinking, this is extraordinary. But then I remembered my own mother, who used to happily steal when she worked in offices. She used to steal all sorts of stuff. She was quite happy to pack all the hotel towels when we were on holiday as well as soap and ash trays and anything she could put her hands on. I was just a small boy and I would say, ‘Mum, you can’t do that, it doesn’t belong to us’ and she was, ‘no, no, they’ll never notice.’ The suitcases were groaning with contraband when we left the hotel! She would also come home from the office with reams of paper, paperclips and stationary - pencils, pens, anything she could lay her hands on! Of course, I thought, if you continue that to its logical conclusion, you then begin dismantling the desks and taking them out with you as you leave and eventually you close the company.

It’s also quite a subversive play, isn't it? Ideally, as an audience we remain sympathetic to the plight of the protagonist - Jack - despite where his actions lead.
It’s a play which almost follows the rules of farce as, like a farce, it leaves the audience - hopefully - saying at the end, ‘how the hell did we get here?’ As a playwright, my intention was to encourage the audience to agree with every step of Jack’s moral decline until they've got so much blood on their hands too, they’ve been led into almost becoming co-conspirators in the crimes.

A Small Family Business has been described by writers such as Mark Ravenhill and Michael Billington as one of the most significant plays of the 1980s, do you think it’s still relevant?
Definitely. How many of us today steal films and music without a second thought? All those movies people put so much effort - and money - into creating and it now seems to be perfectly acceptable to just download them. All we seemingly need to do is to create a mythical ‘them’ to justify it - ‘they’ won’t notice and ‘they’ won’t ever know.
With
A Small Family Business, I started with a bottle of stolen cheap shampoo and extrapolated from there. I took the play to the worst crimes I could think of - one of them was peddling drugs to underage children and the other was murder - both of which I included. Jack justifies his behaviour as being the next logical step, but remains intensely moral throughout.

Do you think this is the right time for the National Theatre’s revival?
I think it all just keeps unravelling, doesn’t it? When you of think everything that has happened since 1987 - the MPs with their expenses, the collapse of the banking system, all of it - all this happened after A Small Family Business. I don’t blame people who say, ‘you can’t trust anyone these days.’ You sit there staring at people thinking, ‘what’s your angle, what are you out for?’ It’s fairly awful, the degree of mistrust we have today and it all stems from this disregard of the society we live in.

What was your experience like with the original production?
A Small Family Business was the third play during my season at the National Theatre between 1986 and 1988. All the actors had, at some stage in the season, been working together. So we hit the play running with a company that was up for it and very comfortable with each other.
It was very strange as it was the first time I’d ever written a play quite so far ahead. I gave it to the National's Artistic Director, Peter Hall, long before I even started working on my first play of the season,
Tons of Money. By the time we’d finished Tons Of Money, had a small break and then did Miller's A View From The Bridge, it was almost a year since I’d written A Small Family Business.
I remember picking up the script for rehearsals - with these 6 different rooms on two floors, which fortunately the National had the facilities to give us a plywood mock up of - and going through it and blocking it in just two days and saying “Oh, the playwright knew what he was doing!”

Are there any particular challenges in staging A Small Family Business?
You are watching action in two or three different houses at once on a single set, so it is quite complicated. It remains a huge object lesson in getting a play on its feet as soon as you start because the physicality of the play is everything; I think A Small Family Business has had - since its original production - some less satisfactory productions, to put it politely.
When directing it, you have to remember it's a narrative driven play; it’s really important you keep the audience with you at all times and don’t get sucked into big moral issues. Essentially, this remains a play about an honourable man slowly going to the bad; but - at least in his mind - he remains honourable despite all he does.

You've previously spoken about your unfulfilled plan to direct A Small Family Business at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2012, would you still consider reviving it?
Maybe I’d revive it at Scarborough - I certainly don’t rule it out. Let's see how the National does! This production has got a good cast and the director, Adam Penford, has formed a company of good actors to tackle it. I suspect it’s a company that you'll want to accept as a family and, that's important, because it is all about the family.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.