A Small Family Business: Background

In 1972, Alan Ayckbourn became the Artistic Director of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. It is a position he held until he retired in 2009 and during this period, all of Alan's plays (61 in total) were premiered bar one in Scarborough. The exception is A Small Family Business which was commissioned by and for the National Theatre as a result of Alan taking a two year sabbatical to work at the London venue. The play and Alan's two years at the National Theatre are inextricably linked and it is difficult to consider one without the other.

The decision to take a sabbatical from Scarborough has its roots in Alan Ayckbourn's 1984 play
A Chorus Of Disapproval. The play was scheduled to open at the National Theatre in 1985 and whilst in correspondence with the venue's Artistic Director, Sir Peter Hall, about the production, Hall suggested Alan might think about coming to the National as an Associate Director. At the time, the National operated a number of companies at any one time under one director (known variously as an Associate Director, Staff Director or Company Director) allowing them to work with a single company of actors with a repertoire of plays. The offer was obviously tempting and made even more so given Alan felt he needed a short break from the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, whilst staying committed to the town and the venue. By the time A Chorus Of Disapproval opened at the National Theatre in 1985, Alan had committed to the idea, later noting it was probably the only offer he would ever have accepted to persuade him to move away from Scarborough for any length of time.

Hall's offer to Alan was to direct any three plays of his choosing in the National's three venues using a far larger company than he had experience of in Scarborough. The only proviso was one of the plays had to be a new Ayckbourn; this became
A Small Family Business. Alan decided his play would be written for the National's largest venue The Olivier as it would provide him with the opportunity to create a play he could never conceivably write for or produce in Scarborough. By September 1985, it had become public knowledge that Alan was to take a sabbatical from Scarborough, although he pledged he would still write and direct plays for the venue and he would return to Scarborough at the end of the sabbatical.

With everything in place, Alan set about writing
A Small Family Business in April 1986, before he had even moved down to London. This was the first time Alan had written a play not intended for Scarborough since Mr Whatnot in 1963 and it heralded a major shift in the playwright's method of writing. Prior to 1986, Alan had typically written his plays to the latest possible deadline - frequently finishing them the day before rehearsals were due to start. This was impractical for the National Theatre; Hall had to approve the play, but it also had to be available for casting decisions. As a result, Alan wrote the play a year in advance of its production and he would never again write to a last minute deadline.

A Small Family Business follows an honest man, Jack McCracken, whose principles and moral stance are corrupted without him truly comprehending what he has become. In interviews, Alan said the idea of the play came when one of his sons was discussing the accounting ‘tricks’ he had come across whilst studying catering. Alan was shocked and he began to think about morality in the modern world and how even an honest man could very easily take the wrong path without ever believing he was compromising his own morals. Alan would later say he felt it was a morality play while other observers would also view it as a state of the nation play.

It had a scale that Alan had never been able to realise in the intimate theatre in Scarborough. True, there had been ambitious plays before, such as
Way Upstream and A Chorus If Disapproval, but while these had been large productions when they transferred to the National Theatre, they were still conceived for and produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. A Small Family Business would never have been possible in Scarborough at the time. The set incorporates a large two-storey house, which easily filled the vast space of the National's Olivier stage. Described as a giant doll's house and designed by Alan Tagg, the set represented several different houses; the similar furnishings explained as the family business in question is a furniture business and all the families have the latest designs from the factory. This clever conceit allows action at several houses to be portrayed simultaneously with only the need for a change in the lighting state to indicate which house each room represents.

Alan knew before he wrote
A Small Family Business that he wanted Michael Gambon to be part of his National company and he would eventually write the role of Jack around the actor. Gambon was a hugely experienced Ayckbourn actor at that stage having appeared in six London premieres of Alan's plays prior to this (most recently in the National Theatre productions of Sisterly Feelings in 1980 and A Chorus Of Disapproval in 1985). He was quick to join the company and Alan believes Gambon paid him the highest complement by signing his contract before he had even read A Small Family Business. With an actor of Gambon's calibre on side, it was not hard to attract equally high calibre talent for the rest of the company.

The acting company that was formed featured several familiar faces from Alan's Scarborough company such as Russell Dixon, Marcia Warren and Diane Bull alongside newcomers such as Suzan Sylvester. The company rounded out by several other experienced and more familiar actors such as Elizabeth Bell and Simon Cadell. The latter was something of a surprise decision as Cadell was by this point closely associated with the hit BBC sit-com
Hi-De-Hi and his decision to play totally against type in A Small Family Business as the odious detective Hough was both surprising and much acclaimed.

Alan's first play with his company was the Aldwych farce
Tons Of Money, which he had recently also directed in Scarborough. It opened in October 1986 and was a success but did not exactly stir the enthusiasm of the critics. Which perhaps made Alan's next production, Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge, all the more surprising when it opened in February 1987. With Gambon in the lead role of Eddie, Alan directed a play that was practically unanimously praised by all and about which Miller himself said he considered the definitive production of his play. It was a triumph soon to be followed by A Small Family Business and both productions would win Alan and his company major awards and praise.

The press night of
A Small Family Business (delayed due to Michael Gambon being injured during rehearsals - see Behind The Scenes) saw the play open to excellent reviews with Gambon and Cadell receiving particularly good notices and critics praising both the play and Alan's direction. The play was a huge success for the National Theatre and went on to win the Evening Standard Best Play of The Year Award. It also heralded an unusual achievement in what is believed to be a first for any playwright; at the time A Small Family Business opened, Alan had plays running simultaneously at the National Theatre (A Small Family Business), in the West End (Woman In Mind at the Vaudeville) and on the London fringe (The Westwoods at the Oxford Arms).

The success of
A View From The Bridge and A Small Family Business had unforeseen repercussions though, which would particularly affect the latter. Such was the demand to see A View From The Bridge that a decision was taken to transfer it to the West End with most of the original company. This, of course, decimated Alan's repertory company at the National and a new company had to be cast to take over A Small Family Business at the end of November 1987 when A View From The Bridge transferred. Whilst on one hand it was a good position to be in, it did mean more than half the company, including Michael Gambon, left A Small Family Business to head into the West End. Fortunately, the National rallied around and working with Alan brought together another strong repertory company with Stephen Moore taking over Gambon's role and Clive Francis assuming Cadell's role with favourable reviews being given by the critics. Because of all that had happened, Peter Hall now approached Alan about directing a fourth play for the National, which would also give his new company a second play in repertory. Alan agreed and in February 1988, John Ford's play 'Tis Pity She's A Whore opened in The Olivier

A Small Family Business ran at the National Theatre in repertory for 16 months until September 1988. A West End transfer and tour were seriously considered by the National, but the practicalities of staging it elsewhere - not least a set built around The Olivier - unfortunately put paid to those plans. Interestingly, a tour of the National Theatre's production was announced in relation to the creation of Upstart in 1988; a controversial and unsuccessful attempt to launch a private and public backed theatre company with initial funding from both the Arts Council and private investment. The company, announced in April 1988, was intended to launch with a touring production of A Small Family Business but this never took place and the company was disbanded in early 1991.

Another offer with regard to the play was firmly declined when the film director Michael Winner made an offer to buy the film rights for the play in August 1988. The director had recently finished filming Alan's play
A Chorus Of Disapproval and Alan's experiences with the latter venture made it no surprise when the offer to film A Small Family Business was firmly turned down.

A Small Family Business was published by Faber in April 1987 to tie in with the National Theatre's production of the play with Samuel French publishing an acting edition in 1988; Faber would reissue the play in 2014 to mark the play's revival at the National Theatre with both a paperback and a digital edition of the play. The play was made available for professional production in 1989 and although the cast and staging requirements prevent it from being frequently produced, it has had a number of significant professional productions over the years including at Chichester Festival Theatre, Clywd Theatr Cymru and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

In 2009, to mark the playwright's 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Alan's first play, the BBC broadcast a radio adaptation of the play directed by Martin Jarvis with Alfred Molina leading a strong ensemble cast. In April 2014, the National Theatre revived the play with the outgoing Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner citing the play was as relevant as ever when discussing the revival in correspondence with Alan; it opened to generally strong reviews with particular acclaim for Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken and Matthew Cottle as Benedict Hough. The production was also streamed to 1,100 screens in over 40 countries as part of the NT Live programme; this marked the first Ayckbourn production to be broadcast live and also finally gave Scarborough audiences the chance to see one of the few Ayckbourn plays which has never been staged in the playwright's adopted home-town.

Back in 1988, with
A Small Family Business still in repertory at the National Theatre, Alan returned to Scarborough and the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round company. It had been an extraordinarily successful two years for him and saw his talents as a director widely recognised for the first time. A View From The Bridge and A Small Family Business won both acclaim and several major awards as well as an Olivier nomination for Best Director. All this made a significant difference to how Alan and his playwriting was approached by critics and marked a significant point in his career. The wider impact of the play is hard to measure, but it was certainly influential. Michael Billington named it as one of his British plays of both the decade in 1989 and of the century in 1997. Meanwhile, the playwright Mark Ravenhill has stated A Small Family Business was the political play of the 1980s and had been an inspiration to him as a writer.

"I think if you look at the point A Small Family Business was written in 1987, family and business are the key words of the Thatcher regime. I think it’s significant he’d directed an Arthur Miller play [A View From The Bridge] in the same season and it very much follows an Arthur Miller 'All My Sons' structure where it starts with the ideal of a small family business and bit by bit that ideal is eroded by the events of the play. And to undermine the whole notion of family and business in an absolutely relentless way throughout the play until there’s nothing left of that notion, I think is one of the most intensely political plays of the period."
Mark Ravenhill


Ensconced firmly back in Scarborough, Alan would move immediately onto the highly ambitious play
Man Of The Moment, another play which tackled morality and which would transfer to London to enormous success and with Michael Gambon back in an Ayckbourn play as the innocent abroad, Douglas Beechey. The latter play would complete a remarkable series of four plays for the playwright, any one of which could rightly be regarded as an Ayckbourn classic. Much as he had written five plays in succession in the 1970s which defined his writing of that period with Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests and Absent Friends; so the successive plays of Woman In Mind, A Small Family Business, Henceforward… and Man Of The Moment redefined Alan Ayckbourn for the 1980s.

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