Wednesday 16 April 2014

Theatre review: A Small Family Business

Did you know that every year as many as 47 seconds can go past without an Alan Ayckbourn play being staged in London? For as little as £5 a month you can help ensure that ageing middle-class white people like Susan and Jeremy can have a place where they feel safe and loved, outside of Waitrose's opening hours. The dream of 24/7 Ayckbourn coverage is within our grasp, but until it becomes a reality the National Theatre's remit includes a compulsory revival every couple of years. Of course, I'm being unfair to a point, but only to a point: With the right play and the right production I've been known to have a lot of fun at the playwright's comedies. But while there's no question the Olivier was full of people laughing their socks off tonight, I wasn't with them as A Small Family Business was neither the right play nor the right production to grab my interest.

I had a problem from the word go, with the sitcom stalwart opening scene of Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay) returning home to a surprise party. As his wife Poppy (Debra Gillett) tries to steer him towards the living room without giving the game away, he tries to get her into bed, their friends hearing all his embarrassing "sexy" lines as he undresses. Yes, the punchline is his trousers falling down in front of everyone.

The cause for celebration is Jack leaving his job to take over as MD of his father-in-law's (Gawn Grainger) furniture company. He soon discovers that someone is swindling the company and hires creepy, dribbling private detective Benedict Hough (Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle, who seems to be in every Ayckbourn play now. Maybe he figures that if he's in them, there's no risk of having to watch them.) But the scrupulously honest Jack doesn't realise his entire extended family are in on the scam, and the investigator now has leverage against him.

A Small Family Business is a dated satire on everyone's little bending and breaking of the rules for profit; Ayckbourn has occasionally proven capable of lending a slightly darker edge to his comedy but here the whole thing has about as much genuine edge as that episode of Only Fools and Horses where Rodney said "shit" and my nan said "ooh I say!" And she was probably mainly annoyed because it gave my grandad carte blanche to say "bum" even more often than he did already. My nan had quite particular expectations of social decorum for someone from Peckham.

Anyway I found A Small Family Business to be a half-baked sitcom, whose spectacular set from Tim Hatley doesn't make up for how flat Adam Penford's production is. Of course I was mainly there because Vanessa loves Ayckbourn, and she enjoyed this a lot as well - she particularly liked Samuel Taylor as Jack's dimwitted son-in-law. Niky Wardley as his forthright sister-in-law is also excellent, but some good performances didn't salvage a couple of hours I found hard to engage with in any way.

A Small Family Business by Alan Ayckbourn is booking in repertory until the 27th of August at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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