A Small Family Business

Originally premiering 17 years ago at the National, Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business makes its return to the Olivier Theatre. I feel instantly humbled by Tim Hatley’s design. It comprises of a true-to-scale detached, and very sizeable house, neighboured by similar, smaller structures, only in 2-D, behind.

The action is unveiled as the house spins around and the play begins. Jack McCracken, played by Nigel Lindsay, is on his way home to a surprise celebratory gathering to mark his new role in the family furniture business. The boss is his father-in-law Ken Ayres, played by Gawn Grainger, a widower who is competing with random snatches of Alzheimer’s, whilst determined to be the man in control of what and whom he knows.

Speeches and small talk are interrupted (unapologetically) by Benedict Hough, the private store investigator, played by Matthew Cottle, an eccentric and strange man, pungent with the acrid scent of lost hope. His characterisation is delivered through an impeccable physical dialect, hunched over slightly, with consistent moisture from the mouth, making his distinction from the others even more significant and comical.

Hough shines the spotlight on the youngest daughter Sammi, played by Alice Sykes, who has shoplifted goods to the value of a couple of pounds. Therein begins the unravelling of the moral thread that Jack McCracken was so sure he had in place. As basic morals are questioned, Jack discovers that the business, and family values as he knows them to be, may not be as they seem.

Jack’s wife Poppy, played by Debra Gillet, expresses her frustration that he has only just realised that everyone else seems to make ends meet by keeping some matters under wraps. Poppy is torn throughout between her loyalty to her husband’s honest way of life, and the temptation to have the finer things in life. Gillet’s infectious energy and innocence are portrayed to perfection throughout.

Jack discovers that the source of the immorality lies at the hands of the focused but failing chef – Desmond Ayres, played by Neal Barry. Having driven his wife Harriet, played by Amy Marston, to starvation and riddling anxiety (due to its unpalatable nature), he buys his own restaurant, making money to do so by selling on the company furniture stock to a family of Italian criminals to flog.

Doors are opened and closed, each time revealing another skeleton. Gerard Monaco portrays each of the Rivetti brothers with their own resonance and charm.  All, apart from one, are fiercely barricaded behind the language barrier, nodding along, staring into space, or trapped in the adulteress’s wardrobe, as more and more corruption is concocted in the various rooms/houses.

The adulteress in question – Anita McCracken, played by Niky Wardley is the principal liaison and co-ordinator of operations for the underground dealings, using an exquisite and undaunted ‘understanding’ of Italian, and hosting at times from her very own den of domination. Leather and luxury is flaunted flawlessly, not only in Ayckbourn’s straight-forward and forthright text, but also in Wardley’s delivery.

Adam Penford’s direction has allowed the actors to sketch and mark their characters, decorating the set with a sense of freedom, the scale of which matches the size of this playground of bricks and temptation.

Without giving the game away, the gasps and laughs throughout almost match the volume of one of Hough’s entrances – a drum roll of thunder that scores his almost sinister stance, quivering under his umbrella, back to the audience, informing us that the plot will indeed continue to thicken.

In the safe hands of rock-steady Nigel Lindsay, this play is all-encompassing. It not only revives and calls forth a remarkably well-written piece of theatre, but proves itself formidable in its own right, led by the cast and creative team that house this new production. A must-see for those of us who can’t resist a lil’ temptation, and I’m pretty sure that’s most of us!

A Small Family Business runs until 31 May. For more information on how to book tickets please see the National Theatre website. Photo by Johan Persson.