The TheatreguideLondon Review
Small Family Business
Olivier Theatre 2014
Like all the best of his plays, Alan Ayckbourn's 1987 comedy combines laugh-out-loud silliness with catch-you-up-short exposures of the unhappiness beneath the surface of ordinary life, all within the context of a masterfully constructed farce.
Director Adam Penford has chosen in this polished revival to play down the darker undertones and enjoy the comedy relatively untempered, a thoroughly legitimate and audience-pleasing option that only some Ayckbourn veterans, missing the playwright's signature leavening agent, might regret.
An honest businessman and honourable man is poised to take over his father-in-law's furniture company when he discovers that all his in-laws have been robbing the place blind for years, while still finding time and energy between their embezzlements and dodgy deals with Italian rivals for personal corruption – some light shoplifting here, a touch of adultery there, a bit of murder . . . .
Under threat by a slimy private investigator, the honest man has little choice but to defend and cover up, slowly being sucked into the culture of corruption himself.
The fun comes from the string of revelations about what just about everyone in the extended family has been up to, and in the way our hero reels from shock to shock, compromising one principle after another while hardly realising it.
The potential darkness comes from the same process, as Ayckbourn reveals not only the extent of the corruption but how easy it is for a good man to join in.
It's that darker side that the director somewhat glosses over. Twenty-seven years later I can still remember the chilling effect of watching Michael Gambon in the central role moving inexorably from moral rectitude to full immersion in the muck.
But here the excellent Nigel Lindsay is more like an innocent wandering through the moral morass, corrupted only to the extent of losing his ability to be shocked by it but remaining somewhat unsullied himself.
Meanwhile, several of the secondary characters, like Matthew Cottle's investigator and Niky Wardley's sexy sister-in-law, are played as near-cartoons, getting all the laughs but losing the hints of underlying sadness or desperation that are Ayckbourn trademarks.
As I said, only those who know that the dark undertone is part of Ayckbourn's greatness and the thing that separates him from other skilled comic writers will miss it here, and everyone can enjoy this Ayckbourn-lite for the evening's worth of laughs it delivers.
Apart from everything else, A Small Family Business demonstrates the architectural skill that is another Ayckbourn trademark, here taking the literal form of a set designed by Tim Hatley to the playwright's specifications as a multilevel cutaway house that not only allows action in a half-dozen rooms but also conquers space and time by serving as three separate homes, so that characters can leave and then come back in, having travelled from one in-law's home to another.
So cleverly is this device established that eventually we can be in two places at once, with characters in the kitchen understood to be in one house while those in the bedroom are in another, and they can cross in the hall without meeting.
So in the spare moment of not laughing at the comic action, we can pause from time to time to note and enjoy how very clever the playwright is.
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Review - A Small Family Business - National Theatre 2014