Robert Tanitch reviews A Small Family Business at National Theatre, London SW1
Alan Ayckbourn’s modern morality play, which satirized the materialism of Thatcher’s Britain, returns to the Olivier Theatre where it premiered in 1987.
Everybody steals. Everybody bends the rules. Shop-lifting, stealing, swindling, bribing, blackmailing, industrial espionage, large-scale fraud; you name it, they are all the norm. There is no moral code. Only fools are honest and have principles.
The play has one of the funniest opening scenes ever written and Adam Penford’s production gets off to a hilarious start. Nigel Lindsay heads the cast as the paterfamilias who has no inkling of the greed and corruption within his own family circle.
“Surely,” he says, “somewhere there’s got to be a minimum level of decent human Behaviour, hasn’t there? Beneath which none of us sink.” There isn’t. The whole barrel is rotten.
He determines to run an honest family furniture business, but quickly ends up as a Mafioso Godfather, conniving at murder, prostitution, money-laundering and drug-running.
Nigel Lindsay is good casting. So is Matthew Cottle, a highly experienced Ayckbourn player, as an eminently corruptible private investigator, the creepiest of sinister creeps. There is also a delightful cameo by Gawn Grainger as a doddery grandfather.
The production has a characteristic Alan Ayckbourn gimmick. The set is “the biggest dolls’ house in the world” on two floors with living-room, kitchen, hall, bedroom, bathroom, landing and stairs. The same set is used for three different houses and this allows for simultaneous action in six different venues and fast intercutting between them.