Following on from his 1977 hit Bedroom Farce, Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business first premiered at The National Theatre in 1986 to rave reviews. At the time it was celebrated as an anti-Thatcher piece, hailed by Mark Ravenhill as “one of the most intensely political plays of the period.” How does the play hold up 27 years later?
Extremely well, it seems. The idea of trying to uphold moral values whilst everyone else crumbles into entrepreneurial greed is just as relevant now as it was in the past. The play opens with Jack McCracken (Nigel Lyndsay) about to take over the family business; he is an honest man, full of integrity and well respected within the family. When a private investigator turns up at his doorstep with some revealing information, Jack finds himself to be the only lawful member of a family of liars, thieves and adulterers. One character suggests that 'everyone steals' and that 'system is there to be fiddled with.' The play had a lot to say about greed in the 80's – and with the banks and politicians’ expenses scandals it still resonates today.
The set design by Tim Hatley is stunning, with different rooms in the house allowing multiple scenes to happen simultaneously. The characters are presented in opposing houses, appearing and disappearing. Adam Penford directs with a style that complements Ayckbourn's work, steering the audience's focus in each scene like a magician using sleight of hand. The set gives the impression of a throwback to an 80's BBC sitcom, and the ideals contained within it never feel dated or contrived. There are some wonderful moments such as the entrance of Benedict Hough (Matthew Cottle) at the front door in an almost Hitchcockian fashion.
Nigel Lyndsay is outstanding as the husband balancing precariously on the line between good and evil. We view him struggling with his conscience, trying to maintain his honesty, veering dangerously close to a violent approach. Alice Sykes is perfectly cast as Sammy, the teenage girl who everyone ignores. She tackles this complex role capably, beginning petulantly before shifting to incredibly dark territory. Gawn Grainger is exceptional as Ken Ayres, the father-in-law losing his marbles and subsequently being taken advantage of by everyone he meets.
At times there does appear to be something missing, the farcical nature of the piece only allowing the characters to progress so far. Yet it makes the unexpected ending that much more macabre and chilling.