At the start of this production, the set – a nearasdammit full size reproduction of every suburban estate house you’ve ever seen – wheels round before our eyes to reveal the home hidden inside. It’s a clever coup. By breaking down the forbidding brick walls it beckons us in, making the cavernous Olivier seem somehow intimate, promising to expose the secrets of those who dwell within. Sadly though, when the set stops moving, all this promise quickly evaporates leaving us with little more than a gigantic doll’s house.
Ayckbourn has been buffeted more than most by the choppy currents of theatrical fashion. Once derided as safe and populist by critics who thought they were being clever, some modern critics (who think they’re being even cleverer) have decided that he is in fact a subversive chronicler of his times. And so A Small Family Business has come to be hailed by Michael Billington as a “devastating assault” on the “entrepreneurial values we were taught to admire in the 80s”, and Mark Ravenhill as “one of the most intensely political plays of the period”.
This, in my opinion, is a reassessment too far. Ayckbourn himself denies that he writes political plays , and on the evidence of this by-the-numbers production, at least, this cat isn’t going to upset even the most squeamish of pigeons.
Our hero, Jack McCracken, begins the play as a pillar of propriety, known by one and all for his upstanding, unshakable principles. The only problem is his extended family don’t share his scruples, and as he takes over his father-in-law’s business he’s drawn deeper and deeper into their murky schemes. As he compromises his beliefs one after the other, he comes round to the view, expressed by his wife, that everyone bends the rules a little here and a little there: it’s the only way to survive. This, say the play’s admirers, is a clear commentary on Thatcherite materialism. And in a sense, of course it is. But it’s actually much more universal than that – the character of Jack owing more than a little to the theatrical archetype of the tested idealist, seen perhaps most powerfully in Ibsen and Miller. But where those playwrights extract pathos, irony and dark, bitter humour from their heroes’ fall from grace, this play offers no such rewards.
The problem, really, is that Jack is just a nice guy who plays a frustratingly passive part in the story. He’s much too accepting, taking every step of his journey towards the immoral world everybody else inhabits with a moment of comic fluster, of indignance, of mild outrage, then plodding on without ever really being conflicted or or examined. Perhaps it’s true that the danger of rampant commercialism is its uncomplaining, almost unremarked acceptance. But it’s also true that watching someone sort of weak sort of going along with something isn’t particularly dramatic or funny.
The shortcomings of the play are exacerbated by the production, which is entertaining enough but mild and consistently unremarkable. It’s not really Nigel Lindsay’s fault. His Nick is a thoroughly engaging, powerfully likeable presence – it’s just that the script and the direction don’t allow him to be much else. There’s capable support from the large ensemble cast with some amusingly drawn character work. Benedict Hough (who some readers may remember as the geeky one from 1990s sitcom Game On) gives a genuinely extraordinary performance as a snivelling private investigator. His presence is so reptilian as to be physically repulsive, not least because he spits profusely as he talk until saliva runs down his chin and those in the front row (as I was) start wishing the National would hand out souvenir ponchos reading ‘I survived the Splash Zone at A Small Family Business!‘ It’s either a fairly severe medical condition or a bold character choice. Not being able to tell exactly is what makes it great acting.
The evening as a whole feels flabby though. A lot of jokes never really land, the timing never seems quite right, and the more farcical elements lack the necessary precision. That set, so wonderful in its opening moments, is required to represent 4 or 5 different people’s houses over the course of the play, but it’s much too specific to do this, neither director nor designers figuring out a way of solving this staging challenge. And yes, I know the point is that everyone lives in identikit suburban houses. It’s a pretty standard way for artistic types to present ‘ordinary people’, but it’s blinkered. In reality of course no two houses are in any way identical. And either way it’s still deadening to watch.
I have a love/hate relationship with the National, and it tends to work out to a pretty predictable 50/50 split. At its best the theatre is a wonderful place, full of energy and capable of producing extraordinarily imaginative works that simply wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. But so often you find yourself wondering: why this play? Why now? Couldn’t they have found something more necessary to do in this unique space?
What if all your in-laws are outlaws? asks the poster for A Small Family Business. By the end of the evening it’s hard not to answer glumly… So what?
A Small Family Business plays at the National Theatre until 29th June