A Small Family Business – National Theatre

What are your morals worth? How much would someone have to pay you to compromise your principles and are you sure you’re so incorruptible? Jack McCracken is a law-abiding citizen who leaves the firm he works for to join his wife’s family business which manufactures furniture. The owner/father-in-law has discovered an Italian rival is selling exactly the same products so Jack’s first task is to identify and plug the leak. Meanwhile his teenage daughter has been followed home by a private investigator working for a local store where she was caught shoplifting.

Mr Hough has already heard that the family business has a problem, and comes with a deal prepared – he’ll forget the shoplifting charge if he is given the job of investigating the leak. But then Jack starts to uncover what’s really been going on at the firm and needs to halt the investigation before the full extent of their crimes is revealed. But that turns out to be considerably more difficult than he imagines. Trying to neutralise the network of deceit his relatives have created and make the firm legitimate may just lead to his own corruption.

This isn’t a typical Ayckbourn comedy focusing far more on the tight plot than his usual character-driven stuff. Most often you see groups of individuals drawn together for an occasion – Christmas, a village fete, choir or neighbourhood watch meeting – which of itself is rather immaterial, but tensions are drawn out through the human interaction. Ayckbourn characters are usually lonely and this is amplified by being in a group situation. In A Small Family Business we are presented with some fairly single-dimensional characters but with a strong story that keeps the action, and the farce, flowing.

Most of the acting is pretty good here, Nigel Lindsay (seen most recently in the RSC’s triumphant Richard II) does a very good job as the bewildered Jack, frantically trying to do the best for his family whilst feeling his morality compromising as he becomes mired in the business. The two particularly notable performances come from Niky Wardley as Anita, Jack’s sister in law and Ayckbourn regular Matthew Cottle as the seedily sinister Mr Hough. Anita is the real brains behind the organisation, calling the shots with exasperated ease, and hilariously speaking Italian with a cockney accent. Cottle’s Hough is a genuinely chilling and social awkward figure, a familiar Ayckbourn ‘little man’ who milks his moment of power to the utmost.

There’s only one thing really wrong with all of this and that’s the set. It’s a beautifully designed terraced house seen in cross-section, rather like a doll’s house, and meant to represent the generic build of suburbia. But it’s used as the setting for several different homes which just doesn’t really work. For a lengthy first scene the audience understands it to be Jack’s home; then he exits and returns through the front door but now it’s somewhere else. I can see for reasons of flow and simplicity why the designer has chosen to do this but it leaves no room for these multiple homes to represent the personalities of their owners. Audiences are smart enough to keep track but I felt this idea stretched credulity too far in the final section when the one ‘house’ is used for simultaneous scenes taking place in several different buildings.

The stage revolves but all we see is the front of the house, again skilfully created, but it’s only used at the beginning and the interval, doubling as a curtain. At best it’s a waste of half a stage and at worst an expensive screensaver. Until recently, right next door in the Lyttleton, A Taste of Honey used almost exactly the same cross-section design so this seems pretty lazy if you’d seen both productions and surprisingly poor planning by the National, especially as this set hasn’t really enhanced the play.

Having said that, this is an enjoyable production of a different kind of Ayckbourn play with lots of interesting insights into the nature of human corruption and how easily even the most honest man can be led astray. The ticket prices are pretty high with most of the cheaper seats sold to members as usual – it’s a shame the National is beginning to price-out casual theatre-goers. This is dark and funny production is worth seeing, but if the prices are putting you off maybe catch the NT-Live cinema broadcast this week on Thursday12 June instead.

A Small Family Business is at the National Theatre until 27August. Tickets start from £15 (apparently). The NT Live cinema broadcast is on 12 June at 7pm.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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