A Family Affair
Arcola Theatre Winter 2006-2007
The fifty-or-so plays of Alexander Ostrovsky pretty much make up what there is of nineteenth-century Russian drama, so the attraction of seeing one lies as much in historical interest as in the play's own merits, even if those merits prove a mixed bag.
A Family Affair, at least in this translation by Nick Dear and production by Serdar Bilis, is a frequently amusing comedy that has trouble finding its focus and tone. Ostrovsky (or Dear, or Bilis) doesn't seem quite sure whether he wants a farce, a light social satire, a bitter moral satire or a melodrama, and so the play is not quite any of these. Its attractions are bits and pieces along the way, not the play as a whole.
Imagine a somewhat jumbled mix of Moliere's Tartuffe, an Alan Ayckbourn middle-class comedy and a Ray Cooney farce, and you'll have a vague sense of the play. A Russian businessman facing bankruptcy concocts a scheme to escape his creditors that includes transferring paper ownership to a trusted employee, and is perfectly happy when that aide, emboldened by this trust and his new riches, asks to marry the boss's daughter. But once the guy has the girl and the money, his darker side comes out.
As in his other plays, Ostrovsky surrounds this central action with a cast of cartoonish grotesques - the airheaded daughter, her almost-as-ditzy mother, a businesslike marriage broker, and a drunken Uriah Heep-ish lawyer - who provide much of the comedy.
But their broad humour repeatedly clashes with both the more subtle satire of the business scheme and the much darker character revelations of the last act (which also clash with each other).
Individual moments frequently work, be they serious or comic, but your experience of the play is one of constant disorientation, wit bumping against cartoon against melodrama, the characters and tone repeatedly changing to meet each plot twist.
Director Bilis seems unable to paper over the cracks, and the last half-hour in particular goes off in so many directions that it just falls apart. Philip Arditti must take the employee from humble inferior through ardent wooer to cold-blooded villain, and while he plays each aspect effectively, the play defeats his attempts to make them all part of the same character.
As the boss, Jonathan Coyne settles for a broad Bob Hoskins imitation throughout, but Rosemary McHale as his wife, Jane Bertish as the matchmaker and Eve Pearce as an uppity servant have their comic moments.
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Review - A Family Affair - Arcola Theatre 2006