A Small Family Business – review

A Small Family Business

Petty pilfering in the workplace is now so accepted that it has been decriminalised by society.

Hand on heart, who hasn’t filched the odd notebook, roll of sticky tape or box of pens from work?

Everyone does it. Don’t they? But where do you draw the line between helping yourself to a couple of company Biros and skimming off some of the profits to line your own pocket?

Not Jack McCracken, the morally incorruptible boss who trades in fish fingers for furniture to run A Small Family Business.

A revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy of morals opened at The National Theatre last night and it had the audience laughing from the off.

That may have had something to do with the opening which found a rampant Nigel Lindsay arriving home and stripping for sex while his acutely embarrassed wife apologises to a house full of party guests waiting to surprise their randy host.

A Small Family Business first premièred at the NT back in 1987, when Thatcher’s government was in power and Michael Douglas had unleashed the aspirational Gordon Gekko on the world in Wall Street.

The time was typified by bonus-hungry bankers (no change there), self-interest and an obsession with profit and power. Greed was good.

So 27 years later is the comedy now a museum piece? Actually no. Its key themes have made a comeback in today’s get-rich-anyway-you-can culture.

Perhaps we’re not so brazen but everyone’s out to make a fast buck.

After getting over the faux pas at his own party Jack makes a rousing, motivational, speech to those present about family values and getting the firm back on track.

It goes down like a lead balloon.

The unerringly honest businessman has lived life in a bubble, thinking that everyone around him, certainly his family, are as honest and principled as him.

He’s shocked to get a reality check with the discovery that his 16-year-old daughter has been caught shoplifting and, worse, finds out that everyone around him has, at times, been a little bit light-fingered.

“Am I the only one left with any moral values,” he cries.

“Everybody works little fiddles to make ends meet,” admits his devoted wife, Poppy. “It’s not dishonest, just a little fuzzy around the edges.”

Jack’s eyes are well and truly opened by his family’s entrepreneurial ambitions and, investigating suspected industrial espionage at the factory, opens a mega-sized can of worms.

Nigel Lindsay looks right at home as the middle-aged, middle management businessman living in a smart des res with a troublesome teen (a rather restrained rebel from Alice Sykes) in the back bedroom and an increasingly frail father-in-law facing dementia.

He’s someone we can all relate to particularly when he’s left bewildered and initially helpless by the actions of his extended family.

Of course not everyone has a sister-in-law who appears to have an unpaid calling as a suburban dominatrix, a brother who prefers fast cars to fast women and a business partner who’s ripping off his own company.

Teen punk Sammy’s dipping at the local chemist’s shop throws up a revoltingly odious store detective, turned private eye, Benedict Hough, described by Jack as “a voracious little ferret”.

Greasy hair, dirty mac, hunched and flaccid. It was a masterly turn by the ever reliable Ayckbourn stalwart Matthew Cottle.

His rather shocking exit, during Act Two, brought some of the biggest laughs of the night, which I’m not sure was entirely appropriate, but the writer excels in gallows humour.

The story veers wildly from dark to light, but the transition is effortlessly achieved by one of Britain’s greatest comedy playwrights.

The menfolk, Jack excluded, are a pretty gormless bunch. Stephen Beckett’s Cliff is going through something of a mid-life crisis, preferring a good sound system to his wife.

Meanwhile business partner, Des (Neal Barry), thinks he’s Masterchef, and son-in-law Roy (a beautifully blank canvas by Samuel Taylor) isn’t known as a deep thinker.

It’s only the enterprising Anita, Jack’s sister-in-law, who is a successful, if unusual, capitalist turning her love of sex into a profitable and pleasurable sideline (Niky Wardley, raising temperatures by strutting around in a little black PVC number).

Director Adam Penford has brought out the best in a cracking ensemble who make every line sparkle.

Tim Hatley’s doll’s house of a set is stunning and put to use as a generic home to the various families for their own set pieces, sometimes with an upstairs-downstairs situation as dialogue is played out.

A Small Family Business runs in the NT’s Olivier Theatre until August 27.

If you can’t get tickets then it will be shown on screen, as part of the National Theatre Live initiative, at theatres and cinemas near you on June 12.

For more details go to www.ntlive.com

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