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Unwholesome family fun
Alan Ayckbourn's award-winning play, A Small Family Business, has returned this year to the Olivier stage at the National Theatre where it first opened in 1987.
The play – easily summarised by its tagline, "What if all your in-laws are outlaws?" – follows the moral dilemma of Jack McCracken, a man defined by his honesty and integrity, as he takes over his father-in-law's furniture business to discover that it is a hive of illegal activity expertly managed by his other relatives.
A Small Family Business. Image from the National Theatre website
Pulled into the net of corruption by his decision to use less-than-lawful means to save his teenage daughter from a shop-lifting charge, Jack's desperate attempts to restore the business to legitimacy only drag him further down in this farcical tragedy where rock bottom isn't far away from financial success.
Ayckbourn considers himself to be a social writer rather than a political one but this comic play, born from the greed-is-good attitude to economic turbulence in the eighties, explores the moral conflict of a society where citizens sometimes feel they have to take extreme measures to get by. Almost thirty years after its first performance, the themes of A Small Family Business are still relevant today. Ayckbourn's idea – that with the modern decline of organised religion people have more freedom to engineer their own moral codes – demonstrates just how easy it is for a person to lose their grip on their own principles and ideals and slip into a place from which they can't return. Despite the ever-present humour of the piece, it is this underlying theme that leaves the audience with a strong feeling of unease beneath the laughter.
A small family get together. Image from the National Theatre website
The humour of the show is largely physical, with a sitcom bombardment of three jokes per page that masks the tragic natures of the characters with alarming absurdity. A huge hit with the audience, Ayckbourn's jokes and character peculiarities – from the maniacal ravings of Harriet, an in-law with a chronic aversion to food, to the timely appearances of numerous Italian mobsters (all played by Gerard Monaco) and their various hairstyles – raise the tension with familial hysteria and never quit, even during the violent climax.
The cast for this production is successful at portraying both the comedy and its sinister undertones. Nick Lindsay is an entertaining and likeable Jack McCracken and is perfectly complimented by Debra Gillett as his scatter-brained wife, Poppy. Alice Sykes, as Jack's teenage daughter, and Gawn Grainger, playing his father-in-law, give heartfelt performances that constantly raise the stakes in the drama but Niky Wardley steals the show as Jack's hilariously dits-come-mastermind sister-in-law Anita.
Jack's first step into moral oblivion. Image from the National Theatre website
Tim Hatley's set design of a revolving two-story suburban home is the perfect background for the drama, adding a soulless finish to the corrupt tale and further heightening the distaste and discomfort lurking behind the humour. The use of the individual set for each branch of the family's household emphasises the feeling that these events could happen to anyone while ensuring there is always some level of subtext to watch alongside the main action.
The revival of A Small Family Business has led to various interviews with Ayckbourn that are an interesting accompaniment to the play. A filmed recording of the playwright's 45 minute talk at the National Theatre in April can be found here.
A Small Family Business will run at the Olivier stage until 27th August. For tickets and further information visit the National Theatre website.
The show will also be broadcast as part of National Theatre Live at participating cinemas around the country.