A Small Family Business: World Premiere ReviewsThis page contains reviews of the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business at the National Theatre, London, 21 May 1987. It is not a complete set of reviews as the aim of the page is to offer a flavour of how the play was originally received and to offer a cross-section of opinion. All reviews on this page are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author and should not be reproduced.
Ever Ever Land (by Michael Billington)
(In September 1997, the critic Michael Billington wrote an article for The Guardian naming his top ten British plays of the 20th century. A Small Family Business was one of the choices).
10. A Small Family Business by Alan Ayckbourn (1987)
Must have Ayckbourn. Many dramatists, from McGuinness to Mark Ravenhill, have told me how much he has influenced them. This play, in particular, offers a devastating assault on the way the entrepreneurial values we were taught to admire in the eighties lead ultimately to fraud, theft, self-deceit, even homicide. It is the modern equivalent of An Inspector Calls - only, being Ayckbourn, far funnier. It argues just as passionately as the work of more overtly political writers that there is such a thing as society. Confirms that British drama, not least in the second half of the century, has acted in opposition to the prevailing ethos. An important test for inclusion in my highly subjective, and doubtless contentious, Top 10.
(The Guardian, 3 September 1997)
Innocent Adrift In Big Bang World (by Jack Tinker)
It was clear almost from the outset that here was a bold, new departure for Ayckbourn - perhaps the boldest of his outstanding career.
For at a time of creative output, when other prolific playwrights have either dried up or become atrophied in their ways, he seems to have struck an even richer vein of invention.
True, we are lulled into a false sense of security at first. There are all his favourite characters indulging their favourite pastime - enduring a cocktail party.
This is, however, the worst manifestation of this meaningless game - the surprise gathering. And although the surprise inevitably is humiliatingly on the very person it is intended to cheer, the real shock of the evening is yet to come.
For Ayckbourn is not trotting out another black comedy of the aspiring classes contemplating their navels. He is writing with a deep and convincing venom about the new British malaise - which appears to affect an entire generation.
It is the story of one good man, a mildly successful businessman, desperately trying to keep faith with his ideals in the post-Big-Bang world grown sick with greed, where even the well-off want more than they need, and manufacturers become consumer junkies.
From one seemingly-minor incident of shoplifting the plot unravels in a dizzy descent through industrial espionage in the family firm through a thousand-and-one moral compromises into big hush-money and finally to murder and drug-peddling.
Michael Gambon - an actor whose range has become even more prolific and impressive than the author's - is the lynch-pin of this extraordinarily complex yet smoothly ordered production. His earnest trust, billowing into bewildered rage and eventually total surrender is the stuff of comic tragedy.
This is a man obeying every best instinct, yet betrayed on all sides.
Wonderful performances of the same stamp from the likes of Polly Adams as the adoring wife, Simon Cadell as the insidious investigator whose inquiries start off the mayhem, from Michael Simkins as the sinister Italian connection and from Elizabeth Bell, the very symbol of the painted face of Eve.
For, make no mistake, although this is a piece of uproarious fun it has about it the look of Ben Jonson - a comic mirror of a corrupt society into which no one dare look and laugh without seeing his or her own reflection.
(Daily Mail, 6 June 1987)
It's All In The Family (by Charles Osborne)
Alan Ayckbourn's new play, A Small Family Business at the Olivier Theatre, is one of his finest. This time there are no alternative endings or multiple versions, only a neat and, for Ayckbourn, relatively simple plot which works perfectly whether taken literally or as allegory.
Jack McCracken, having made a success of running another firm, takes over the management of the furniture business which had been started by his now senile father-in-law, and which employs several members of the family in key executive positions. That rare creature, a completely honest man, he discovers very quickly that dishonesty is rampant in the family, almost every member of which is engaged in fraud on a huge scale, bleeding the firm dry.
In his attempts to bring everyone back to the straight and narrow path, however, Jack finds himself haying to make increasingly serious compromises until finally his own character is utterly transformed. He can find no answer when his wife informs him that his honesty has been subsidised by her pinching and scraping, and indeed by her own acts of petty dishonesty. Jack has begun by being horrified that his daughter has been caught shop-lifting goods worth £1.87p and that his wife is not above bringing home the odd paper-clip from her office. He ends by conniving at murder and drug-running.
Ayckbourn's family, of course, is the microcosm of a larger organism. The world family, this engagingly cynical playwright seems to be telling us, has turned morality on its head, and absolute honesty is no longer possible, high living standards being incompatible with high moral standards.
The play contains a number of highly engaging performances. Simon Cadell is quite brilliant as the slimy private investigator, Mr Hough, who has to be bribed not to prosecute the shop-lifting daughter (Susan Sylvester), and Polly Adams is a delight as Jack's silly, good-natured wife, Poppy, able with the assistance of her playwright to achieve the biggest laugh of the evening with the innocent line, "I'm very sorry, dear". Marcia Warren contributes a memorable characterisation as Harriet, the disaffected wife of Poppy's brother Desmond (John Arthur), transferring her rejected love to her elderly dog, Peggy, who contributes nothing more than an occasional snore. Michael Simkins successfully portrays an entire family of randy Italian brothers who are enjoying the favours of Anita (Elizabeth Bell), the wife of Jack's brother Cliff (Russell Dixon).
As Jack McCracken, Michael Gambon starts off with the disadvantage that, from the beginning, he looks more like the dangerous Mafia boss he is eventually to become than the gentle, honest family man he is supposed to be. But he is a skilful and persuasive performer, and convincing in exasperation and frustrated rage. I liked Ron Pember's portrait of the 75-year-old head of the family, whose grasp on reality is intermittent, and Barbara Hicks as Yvonne, who has insinuated herself into his affections
Alan Ayckbourn's direction is exemplary, and Alan Tagg's five-roomed set, able to serve as four different houses since all are furnished identically from the family business, is quite masterly.
(Daily Telegraph, 8 June 1987)
A Small Family Business (by Michael Coveney)
In Alan Ayckbourn's brilliant new play for the National Theatre in the Olivier auditorium, a nation of shopkeepers is becoming a nation of shoplifters; the family furniture firm, Ayres and Graces, is falling into the hands of an Italian mafia and the drug dealing business; and everyone is on the fiddle, or "salting it away," to quote a phrase that recurs like a smug refrain, a limp apology, throughout the evening.
Two parties top and tail the action: the first to celebrate Jack's (Michael Gambon) arrival in the business from frozen food, the second to salute his father-in-law's 75th birthday. Old Ken Ayres (Ron Pember) does not remember who anyone is any more, but wants Jack to flush out the corruption. His family produce has been appearing on foreign markets under different labels. The handover coincides with family trouble. Jack's daughter, Samantha, has been spotted shoplifting £1.87 worth of goods. A private inspector calls - surrounded by all due panoply of thunderclaps and hostile slamming doors.
Jack is an honest lad (hitherto) with a devoted wife Poppy (Polly Adams) and two daughters - the indolently rebellious Samantha (Suzan Sylvester) and the suburban carbon copy of Poppy, Tina, whom Diane Bull presents with a London overspill whine of chilling exactitude and a hip-swivelling crockery-drying technique that suggest years of domesticated in breeding.
Ayckbourn elaborates the tragi-comic consequences of moral and domestic laissez faire in the awakening Gambon's double-glazed and lumber Jack to the realities of life. His family is horrified at his ejection of the private investigator on a matter of principle. Before long, though, the stench rises from a can of worms and Jack cuts and trims his principles in a farcical imbroglio with his sister-in-law's Italian connection of sexually insatiable businessmen and the importunate, corruptible inspector Hough (Simon Cadell).
This is the third product of the NT company under Ayckbourn's direction and it neatly summarises the farcical flair of the first (Tons of Money) and the social and feudal bloodbath of the second (A View From The Bridge). We have murder and mayhem, cover-ups and sexual deviation, even the Aldwych farce trick of a horde of funny foreigners - macho medallion men - played by the one actor, Michael Simkins.
The play's opening, the funniest I've seen in years, hooks us sympathetically into the fortunes of Jack as he spoils the blacked-out party reception interpreting his wife's special attire as an invitation to early evening slap and tickle. The great groping Gambon adopts his familiar (to Poppy) persona of a rapacious Viking - "Hairy Eric with his big meaty axe" - and drops his trousers as the party lights come up.
Jack's forward propulsion and open demeanour are checked and clouded by every sort of revelation, from his wife's admission to lifting the odd paperclip from work to brother-in-law Des's surreptitiously funded plans for running a holiday complex in the Balearics. Des (John Arthur) is a compulsive foodie, cooking ambitious meals by Parlophone instruction while his anorexic, furtive wife (Marcia Warren) pours scorn on all public mastication in restaurants and directs what remains of her capacity for emotional demonstrativeness at a dismal, balding little dog.
Ayckbourn has previously used split level, multiple settings to switch a narrative coin or re-cap on simultaneous activity. Here, Alan Tagg's wonderful beige tribute to suburban interior design - the stage resembles a featureless DIY doll's house - is a liberating visual excuse for continuous mobility of story and effect, Gambon charging between four houses like a raging bull, conducting impassioned interviews in bathrooms, bedrooms and hideous pink-lit lounges where the "Pastoral" Symphony is blared out on compact disc.
Character symbol of the suburban good life is Russell Dixon's piggy Cliff. Jack's brother, who relishes his Porsche and single malt, his little boat and his darts at the expense of all meaningful contact with the living. His wife Anita (Elizabeth Bell) has replaced him in the bedroom with her louche wardrobe, whips, manacles and endless lovers. Cliff, with his cutaway driving gloves and emblazoned cardigans, is one of Ayckbourn's most savagely enjoyable creations, and probably an embarrassing challenge to a goodly proportion of the National's local audience.
Ayckbourn has established himself with his three latest NT productions, as one of our most distinguished directors. The performance he has elicited from Simon Cadell, as the hunched and sordid Hough, is not only extraordinary in itself, but a real advance for this talented but manneristic actor. You can smell Cadell's Hough at 50 metres. He, above all, is the figure of our times, an odious middleman who claws his way into favour with a mildewed sense of general propriety to which he unctuously relates his pornographic little endeavours. Cadell scrapes around in a moustache and oversized suit - trouser bottoms ignominiously obscuring his shoes - like a bestial pervert of a peculiarly English variety.
The particular strength of Ayckbourn's idiosyncratic vision is its depiction of a world he despises but which, none the less, is the only world he is prepared to inhabit. The obsession is reflected in the precise use of a language which never gets above itself. Even the odd comic flight into imagery is part of this vision, controlled and domesticated.
(Financial Times, 8 June 1987)
Damp Rot In A Moral Mire (by Michael Billington)
Major cast-changes do nothing to blunt the impact of Alan Ayckbourn's astonishing morality play, A Small Family Business, at the Olivier. It is as much a play about England today as Serious Money. What it is saying is that family life is in decay and that the entrepreneurial values we have been told to foster are more often than not a mask for fraud, theft and wholesale self-deceit.
As so often with Ayckbourn, it is a much subtler play than it first seems in that its hero, Jack McCracken, is the embodiment of both virtue and vice. Taking over the family furniture firm, he makes a speech about the need for trust which assumes a bitter irony as the play proceeds: at the same time, he is clearly a rotten father virtually incapable of communicating with his teenage daughter.
Stephen Moore may not possess the burly authority of Michael Gambon, but he expertly suggests Jack's blend of public rigidity and private insensitivity: Mr Moore also slithers into a moral quagmire with total conviction and a wonderful hint of quavering panic as he tries to pass off ten grand in blackmail-money as no more than "bits of paper."
But it is also a play full of comic danger in that it leaves the audience caught between wind and water, cheering delight and sickened horror when it comes to the beautifully-plotted second act murder. This is partly because Clive Francis, an actor one tends to associate with suave stylishness, gives a brilliant character-performance as a slimy private investigator. Mr Francis presents us with a man with no neck, a positively furtive moustache and a beady glitter in his eyes as he dwells on the delights of corporal punishment. If this man sat next to you in a cinema, you would instinctively move two seats away: his very presence conjures up an image of mildewed rooms with secret drawers stuffed full of sadistic pornography, it is a performance of Dickensian richness.
Amongst the other newcomers, Bridget Turner as a scraggy, life-hating avenger and Sarah Atkinson as a soulless merchandiser of sex are outstanding. To those who accused Ayckbourn of creating comic stereotypes, I would retort that he enables you to construct a whole life out of selective details: witness the character of Jack's brother (beautifully played by Russell Dixon) for whom a digital wrist computer and a car with personalised number plates are not mere status symbols, but things to love in themselves. Other writers may lecture us about the vanity of materialism. Ayckbourn, in this superb play, demonstrates it with the lightest of strokes.
(The Guardian, 28 November 1987)
The Worms In The Cabinet (by Paul Kemp)
The small family business referred to in the title of Alan Ayckbourn's new play manufactures furniture. There's a nice aptness about this for A Small Family Business is itself a masterly piece of theatrical carpentry. Cunningly, its design dovetails the framework of farce with the pattern of the cautionary tale: events escalate hilariously, deviation from decency leads down the slippery slope to retribution.
Alan Tagg's decor for the drama is another triumph of economic expertise. A split-level house, it serves - through changes in lighting and sound-effects - to represent the various homes of different members of the family, all of them identically furnished from the firm's stock.
The bouncy, savage moral fable enacted in this setting is sandwiched between two celebratory get-togethers. As the play opens, Jack McCracken - just appointed Managing Director of the firm - has a surprise party sprung upon him. And, as it very soon turns out, this isn't the only thing about which he's been kept in the dark.
An innocently upright fellow - bursting with integrity in Michael Gambon's splendidly energetic performance - Jack believes, he explains in a pep talk to the family, in unswerving probity: even the pilfering of paperclips is deplorable. Purloined paperclips, however, become the least of his troubles as the play swerves with manic comic momentum through a twisty course of revelations about family fraud and involvement with Mafia drug-pushers.
Initiating both Jack's discovery of this wholesale crime and his helpless entanglement in it, is the behaviour of his younger daughter, Samantha - a sulky little moral moron, poutingly played by Suzan Sylvester, who progresses from shop lifting to almost-accidental murder. Deadpan even when dealing with death, the play shows Samantha's antics bringing in a private investigator whose pryings soon whisk open doors to reveal the skeletons in the family cupboards.
Jack's pudgily cynical brother, Cliff, is raking in ill-gotten gains to finance his collection of high-tech toys. Cliffs wife, Anita - a lip-sticked shark in sexy clothing - profitably merges nymphomania with business acumen. Desmond, the doleful son of the firm's founder, is cooking the books to purchase a restaurant in Minorca, his intended escape route from a bitchy, whining wife who only shows affection to their dog.
Eventually, it is disclosed that most of the family is on the fiddle or the game. Even Jack's wife, Poppy, a perky little ostrich of a woman, cannily keeps her head down to avoid being troubled by scruples, while his older daughter Tina - characterized with spot-on pertness by Diane Bull - is a gigglingly conscienceless creature.
Typically, the most corrupt person in the play is the supposed upholder of the law: the private investigator. Horribly funny in Simon Cadell's magnificently vile performance, he's a sinister black-mailer: physically lopsided, morally bent and sexually twisted. Frisking up at any suggestion of spanking - "She's not too old,", he sepulchrally salivates of Samantha - he finally lumbers half-gamesomely to his death in a scene that is a tour de force of combined creepiness and comedy.
The play's own ending holds exactly the right balance too. As the assembled family celebrate a lucrative drug deal, Samantha - once the cause, but now the casualty of what's happened - lurks upstairs displaying symptoms of becoming a junkie. Beautifully finished - and inlaid with vintage specimens of his comic dialogue - A Small Family Business, Ayckbourn's 32nd play, gleamingly confirms the playwright's status as our most ingenious stage craftsman.
(The Independent, 8 June 1987)
Dirty Deals In The Family (by John Walsh)
At the start of A Small Family Business, Alan Ayckbourn's black morality play at the National's Olivier Theatre, Jack McCracken, the managing director of the firm of Ayres and Graces, makes a speech to his family co-directors.
In the course of it he invokes as watchwords such things as trust, loyalty and fair dealing. The remainder of the play relentlessly uncovers the wholesale lack of any such pleasant qualities in his associates and, tragically, in himself.
His daughter shoplifts from boredom and ends up stealing to finance her drug habit. His brother Cliff (who disgustedly demands "do you always have to be so unbelievably honest?") is a spineless materialist who condones his wife Anita's vampiric adulteries.
His partner Des (along with the rest of the family) has been systematically swindling the company in order to pay for his dream of a villa-come-restaurant in the Balearics. And, after bribing a blackmailing private eye with a job as company investigator, Jack finds himself condoning murder.
It is, nonetheless, a comedy, and a very funny one. Where in earlier works the Scarborough Wizard deployed his consummate dramaturgical skill to heighten comedies of manners, he now uses them - the rapid intercutting between three households, the entrances and exits from Alan Tagg's horribly tacky melamine and plaster board rooms, the conspiratorial groupings - to emphasise the sterility of modern lives and the universality of human greed.
Michael Gambon, as the outraged Jack, is explosively good, responding with horrified fascination, and a dwindling desire for " some minimum level of decency," to the successive revelations of villainy.
Elizabeth Bell as Anita, the shrewish, stiletto-booted dominatrix working her way through five Mafiosi brothers, is both sexy and plausibly appalling. Simon Cadell plays the sleazy gumshoe with hunched, insinuating relish.
This study of moral bankruptcy should convert any espouser of "Victorian values" in the monetarist 1980s. Ben Jonson would have admired its unyielding satirical fire. Ayckbourn has never written more skilfully, or to better effect. Don't miss it.
(London Evening Standard, 8 June 1987)
A Warm Welcome Back To a Summer of Discontent (by Sheridan Morley)
Within the last few days, and doubtless to mark my return to these columns, the two best fringe theatres in London have burned to the ground while four adjacent playhouses on Shaftesbury Avenue, from the Lyric to the Queen's, all for the first time in living memory went temporarily dark at the same time, a feat of simultaneous closure that even the Luftwaffe never achieved. Someone is clearly trying to tell me something about the career prospects of a drama critic in 1987, and just as soon as I find out what it is I will of course let you know.
In the meantime, there still appears to be a National Theatre just over Waterloo Bridge: indeed, there is also still a Barbican, and it would now be possible to spend twelve nights at RSC productions in London followed by another dozen at National Theatre productions: more than three weeks nightly play going without ever leaving one or other of the two major subsidised companies, and still they wonder why the non-musical West End is in such trouble.
Even Alan Ayckbourn is now to be found over the river, where, on the Olivier stage of the National, A Small Family Business is the first of his plays in many years not to have been written for and first seen at his own theatre in Scarborough. A bleak, dark and ultimately very black comedy about a family finally becoming the family in a Mafia sense of that word, this would appear at first sight to share many of the themes of relative values and filial betrayal which are at the heart of another current Ayckbourn National production, Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge.
This is not, of course, a play in anything like that classic or tragic league; but it does suggest that, having previously separated his scripts into the dark and the light, Ayckbourn is now ready, within one admittedly faintly overlong evening, to move from the total farce of the opening sequence, where a man comes home to take his wife to bed only to find ten of his closest relatives assembled in the dark for a surprise party, through to the final and chilling spot-lit vision of a hopelessly drug-addicted daughter sitting alone in a bathroom while downstairs her parents and uncles and aunts are sorting out the disposal of an alien corpse.
What Mr Ayckbourn is telling us is that, like charity, corruption begins at home: his central figure, despairingly well played by Michael Gambon, comes back to take over an ailing family furniture factory which he intends to revive on the simple if unfashionable basis of total honesty. Once he discovers, however, that his daughter is shoplifting and his brother flogging off the firm's furniture at cut rates to Italian rivals, and, what's more, that every single relative is on some kind of fiddle at home or at work, he gradually gets himself caught up in a spiral of blackmail from which there is no escape but only surrender.
Across nearly three hours, things are apt to get a little repetitive, especially as all the relatives live in the same on-stage set, presumably because in a furniture business they would be likely to have identical homes. But when, in a final act of ritual submission to graft and evil, Mr Gambon actually dons a widely-pinstriped suit and delivers a speech about the family future which would not have disgraced the Godfather himself, we cannot be altogether shocked or even surprised. For all that, Ayckbourn remains the master writer of families in lives of gentle madness or total decay: here we have a husband so obsessed by cooking that his wife cannot get into the kitchen, another wife who has filled her bedroom with so many sexual aids that her husband sleeps elsewhere, not to mention a nephew with all the reasoning power of a draught excluder and a private investigator with so many corruptions of his own flesh and soul that he barely has the time to profit from those of others.
In this last role, Simon Cadell gives the only other performance, apart from Gambon's, that is able to rise above the usual Ayckbourn teamwork and create a figure of lonely uneasiness: elsewhere in this bravura hymn of hatred to English family life we are left with pieces of people being fitted into a jigsaw which, when complete, turns out to be a horror picture of Borgia proportions.
(Punch, 17 June 1987)
Impressions Of The Englishman (by John Peter)
What a strange race the British are: how cocky and self-righteous in politics, how cynical and self-mocking in art. Anyone seeing this week's new plays might have got a grim and sour impression of the Englishman at large: at home, according to Alan Ayckbourn, he is greedy and squalid; abroad, according to Dusty Hughes, he is a meddling, ineffectual busybody.
The theme of Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business (Olivier) is the bright economics of the shady '80s. The business of the title is called Ayres & Graces - which is ironical, for the members of the family are bent as a hairpin. Ayckbourn's thesis is not so much that property is theft but that only theft qualifies as property.
Managing director Jack McCracken (Michael Gambon) asks for basic trust, but his relations are busy ripping off the business for their private benefit. It is a kind of economic incest; and one of Ayckbourn's most uncomfortable insights is that crookedness is sexy. (He is often condescendingly thought of as a condescending bourgeois entertainer, but he's sending us the same venomous message as Caryl Churchill in Serious Money.)
In fact, A Small Family Business is like an English suburban comedy written by Ibsen. The combination is hard to imagine, but the writing lives up to it: the comedy is raucous and malevolent, the logic of the action is grotesque but remorseless. Ibsen's characters are usually driven by dark moral urges; Ayckbourn's are animated by the spirit of demented acquisition.
The direction (Ayckbourn's own) has one major flaw: the Italian Rivetti brothers, who are so essential to the dark side of the play, are all played as caricatures. I feel a bit uneasy telling The Master how to direct his own play, but this almost emasculates the argument which otherwise ripples with malignant moral and social accuracy. Some of the supporting cast are not quite up to scratch (as in Ibsen, there are hardly any "supporting" roles in Ayckbourn); but there are poisonously realistic performances from Simon Cadell, and veteran Ayckbournians Polly Adams and Diane Bull. Michael Gambon plays Jack, the Oedipus of suburbia, with a grand, wounded air: a glorious performance, humble and menacing, which calls for both pity and laughter as he declines from macho master to back-slapping pinstripe mafioso.
Alan Tagg's multiple set gleams with the obsessive tidiness of the newly affluent lower middle-class: each ghastly residence is both more and less than a home.
(Sunday Times, 21 June 1987)
Family Fun (by Irving Wardell)
The latest English romantic delusion to fall under Alan Ayckbourn's farcical axe is that supposed repository of uncontaminated national virtues: the old-established family firm.
For three generations, Ayres and Graces (whose wares and personnel feature in an attractive programme advertisement) have been turning out furniture to adorn the middle-class home from their idyllic workshops in Tichley Heath. The firm should know what families want as it is run by two inter-married families, and is still headed by old Ken Ayres, even though he is apt to get them all mixed up since the death of his wife, Grace.
Accordingly, his son-in-law, Jack, is summoned from a flourishing career in fish fingers to assume control as managing director: an appointment he marks with a stirring speech on honesty and trust, before being called into the kitchen to defend his daughter on a charge of shoplifting.
Jack, a figure of Alceste-like integrity, then embarks on a painful discovery of what lies behind the family facade. Everyone, including his devoted wife Poppy, acknowledge a history of petty thefts; and, looking around the assembled in-laws, all with more money to throw around than he has, the question arises as to how brother Cliff acquired a Porsche, and his wife Anita her Imelda Marcus-like wardrobe.
The answer comes from old Ken, who has noticed that A&G goods are being marketed under an Italian label; and, by employing the private investigator who ensnared his daughter, Jack goes on to discover that the entire workforce is involved in a highly prosperous fraud.
From this point, the farce gets into top-gear; showing a long-string of Italians not only as trading partners but as clients for Anita's side-line in sado-masochistic prostitution; and finally leading to the murder of the blackmailing investigator, whose body is obligingly disposed of by the Italians. By the end, the family has become a Family in the full Sicilian sense.
Farce has to escalate. But the logic of Ayckbourn's narrative is that once you start nicking paper clips from the office, it is a straight road to international drug trafficking and bodies in the bath.
The real life in A Small Family Business lies in its character and organisation of incident which only run in parallel with the main theme. One typical example is the opening scene, where Jack roars back home all set to carry his wife off to bed, and then finds himself in the middle of a surprise party with his trousers down.
The set, by Alan Tagg, is naturally furnished throughout from the A&G catalogue, with the result that its four rooms and hallway can serve as any of three houses, and sometimes several simultaneously.
There is pain in the play; but it centres not on financial corruption rather than on marital despair; as represented by the incessantly cooking Desmond (John Arthur) and his quiveringly aggrieved wife (Marcia Warren, encased in an amazing woolly tube) to whom food is an obscenity.
Michael Gambon's Jack gives Ayckbourn's production a centre of huge, indignant and finally collapsing energy; but this is a maypole role whose main function is to allow the others to dance. On these terms, it is brilliantly up to this author's ensemble standards. Look out for an unrecognisably twisted Simon Cadell as the blackmailer, and Elizabeth Bell, interrupted in mid-flagellation to don a severe pair of glasses as the real boss of the outfit.
(The Times, 6 June 1987)
Changing Places (by Hilary Spurling)
Alan Tagg's set for Alan Ayckbourn's new play is a doll's house with the front off, four rooms furnished from stock (the family business in question is furniture) so as to represent any one of four different houses separately, successively or, as the plot thickens, all at once. This is the kind of set which, by the approach of the second-act climax, can comfortably hold an emergency conference in one house and a fraught exchange in a second, while a private detective (Simon Cadell, making the most of a dirty mac, a dirtier mind and horribly inhibited arm movements) plods from room to room in a third, methodically checking for occupants who narrowly elude him in what is, from his point of view, probably an empty building.
Like so many of Ayckbourn's stage devices, this one is elegant, economical and highly efficient. Even empty, it has the inviting air of a wind-up toy waiting to creak, twitch and scuttle into action. The figures may be on the scruffy side - perpetually caught with their trousers unbuttoned, down or off- but the mechanism inspires confidence. As in all the best farces, greed and embarrassment are the primary fuels on which these people run. But where, say, Feydeau's characters are driven by greed which they struggle feebly to suppress, being cruelly blocked by embarrassment, Ayckbourn's learn triumphantly to ignore the second while surrendering unconditionally to the first. Feydeau's characters are innocents in a world paved with good intentions. There are no good intentions in Ayckbourn. It is innocence itself that is venal, culpable and inevitably bound to cause trouble.
What is irresistible is the fact that - like Feydeau's Parisian adulterers, snobs and martinets a century ago - Ayckbourn's suburbanites are instantly recognisable. Their particular style of short-changing belongs, as much as their hair-dos and their turns of phrase, to Thatcher's Britain. The competent pigtailed schoolgirl (Suzan Sylvester, a collector's piece to set beside her 1930s teenager in the same company's A View From The Bridge) finances incipient drug addiction by a rapid expansion in shoplifting. Her equally business-like married aunt has converted the back bedroom into a well-equipped brothel (and you may be sure that a phone-call for auntie will be punctuated by muffled screams from an invisible client left inadvertently strung up on some unmentionable piece of apparatus).
This is a world of hustlers, dodgers, fixers, where anyone managing to have it off with not one but five corrupt Italian businessmen (all five brothers played with aplomb by Michael Simkins) qualifies, as soon as she has completed the set, for a free gallon of petrol. Michael Gambon plays the honest business man, faithful husband and devoted son-in-law who needs to be taught a lesson: a massive, latter-day Candide moving by violent stages from bewilderment, incredulity and stupefaction to relaxed and resplendent villainy. Marcia Warren is, as someone says, the incarnation of a tweedy praying mantis, as his misanthropic, frigid and anorexic sister-in-law ("It's the chewing", she says, describing a meal in a booming, prurient hiss: "All that mastication in front of each other"). In skirmishing where the only rule is every man for himself, she wins hands down with an unremittingly aggressive extension of herself in the shape of an ancient, mangy, bedridden and insomniac dog.
Ayckbourn directs himself without a trick missed. What he calls his stage muscles have never been stronger or more flexible. Physical niftiness of this order works, like Tagg's set, on at least two levels, which is why it is so painfully funny. A Small Family Business is, after all, a machine for demonstrating in graphic form the psychological ropes and pulleys - the fixations, inhibitions, primitive rages, crude desires, guilts, fears and needs - that jerk these characters forward only to pull them up again on a series of short strings.
(Times Literary Supplement, 19 June 1987)
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