Family values and Thatcherite greed lock antlers in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 state-of-the-nation play A Small Family Business in which the family that stays together pays together. And what the McCracken family, who are in the furnishing business, is paying for, is a materially lavish lifestyle financed by an ongoing series of crooked schemes in which even the Mafia would appear to be involved.
The only McCracken unaware of the graft and corruption being practiced in the family business is Jack (Nigel Lindsay), an outwardly honest individual who, when the play begins, has just replaced his father (Gawn Grainger) – currently in the throes of galloping dementia – as head of the firm.
At a surprise party arranged by Jack’s wife Poppy (Debra Gillett), Jack leavens the jollity by announcing to the assembled clan and their spouses that his business credo is to be honest and up-front on all occasions, even when it comes to taking home paperclips for personal use. It is only when his morose, anti-social teenage daughter Samantha (Alice Sykes) is accused of petty shoplifting by a security officer called Benedict Hough (Matthew Cottle) that the scale of his family’s crooked business practices is revealed.
Hough, it transpires, knows all about the McCrackens’ shady deals and makes Jack an offer he can’t refuse: He’ll keep his incriminating knowledge under wraps and quash the charges against Samantha if, in return, Jack gives him a job with the firm.
It’s at this point in the proceedings that the plot’s more farcical elements take centre stage, providing, at the same time, an uneasy framework for the play’s political agenda: that in Thatcher’s Britain – with greed and acquisitiveness a way of life – there is no such thing as an honest man.
Ayckbourn’s attempts at camouflaging a disagreeable premise by treating much of it as farce only partially succeeds. The sure-fire opening scene, in which Jack finds himself a victim of a surprise party when he blithely removes his clothes in an attempt to have some “rough trade” with his wife, works a treat and is genuinely funny.
But as the various complexities of the plot unfurl, the play, all too often, loses its footing. The narrative structure lacks the sureness of some of Ayckbourn’s earlier plays, credibility is too often marginalised or ignored completely, while, with a couple of notable exceptions, characterisations are far too clichéd and one-dimensional to command serious attention. Only Jack McCracken, his wife Poppy and the unctuous Benedict Hough emerge as flesh-and-blood creations. The rest are too cartoonish for the play’s good.
Which creates a serious problem for director Adam Penford, who’s left with the task of unifying the piece’s many disparate elements. Some scenes, such as the opening and the grisly shower encounter, work better than others, but for much of the time there is a singular lack of focus, as though author and director can’t make up their minds what they want the production to be, a serious comedy or a rampant black farce underpinned by a political statement.
Lindsay is excellent in the ever-evolving role of Jack, originally created by Michael Gambon, and there’s strong support from Gillet and Cottle. But that’s about it.
No expense has been spared on Tim Hatley’s set, which stands in for all four of the McCracken homes featured in the play,and which resembles, both inside and out, the kind of house you’d find at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London’s Earl’s Court.
Not vintage Ayckbourn by a long shot.