A Small Family Business: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
A Small Family Business (Programme note from unrecorded production)
In 1987, at the request of Sir Peter Hall, I took a two year leave from the tiny in-the-round theatre which I direct in Scarborough…. I was invited to form my own acting group, one amongst several, that operated at that time under the overall title of the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Peter’s brief to me had been fairly general: an acting company of around 20, three productions, one in each of the NT’s auditoria with the proviso that one of these should be a new play of my own….
A Small Family Business was the result. It has been described as my “state of the nation” play. I suppose there’s a certain truth in that, though I would hate to think that it could be interpreted as a political piece. Social yes, political no. Politics and politicians are after all, in a democracy, merely the symptoms of that society’s current disease. They neither cause it and rarely can they cure it. The sickness in this instance seems to me to be an insidious erosion of any agreed moral code of behaviour. When is it right to steal? Is it ever permissible to kill another human being? Are there special circumstances where certain criminal acts become permissible? A lot of people seem to be asking these questions with increasing frequency, coming up with dangerous answers.
No play can hope to answer such fundamental questions. What it does is point out, I hope, that the slope from permissible to the unacceptable is a slippery one. The human mind left to its own devices can usually justify any code of behaviour it chooses to suit circumstances. Beware!
Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 1
A Small Family Business, written in 1986, was unusual in that it was the first play for over twenty years which I had to submit and await someone else's verdict as to whether it merited production.
Sir Peter Hall, who had introduced me to the National Theatre in 1977 with Bedroom Farce, had been an occasional producer of my plays on the South Bank ever since. In 1985, Peter asked me if I'd like to take a break from Scarborough and come and run my own company at the National. My brief was to direct three plays over a two-year period, one in the conventional proscenium-arched Lyttelton, another in the large open-staged Olivier and a third on the smaller-scale, flexible Cottesloe stage. The only condition was that the one in the Olivier must be a new one of my own. I would have choice of the other two plays and be able to handpick my own acting company of twenty. The prospect of playing with such large toys proved irresistible.
I knew the Olivier of old. Not the friendliest of spaces for those purveyors of modern low-key naturalistic drama. 'For love scenes you stand six feet apart and shout at each other,' Michael Bryant, that most experienced of Olivier performers once advised me. 'All other scenes you stand twenty feet apart and yell.'
In the end, the solution I came up with was a variation of the one I first used with my first play in the Lyttelton, Bedroom Farce. Namely, if you can't find anything big enough to fill the space, then divide the space. With A Small Family Business I found the perfect excuse to put on stage something that had always been till then beyond my wildest budget, namely a two-storey house complete with working kitchen and bathroom. The biggest dolls' house in the world. Peter described the piece as a modern morality play. He said it reminded him of Ben Jonson. I later read some Ben Jonson but I must confess I didn't understand much of it. Still, I was very flattered.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.