A single generation can radically alter our perspective on a play, and not necessarily due to a swing of the political pendulum. Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business premiered on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage in 1987, at the high-water mark of Thatcherite acquisitiveness. It was clearly a black satire on what struck many at the time as the idea that rules were outmoded, that whatever helped one to one’s own goal was legitimate.
When Jack McCracken takes over as managing director of the family furniture company, he finds that his brother, brother-in-law and sister-in-law live better than him because they are creaming off the company’s product for rebadged resale via a family of dodgy Italians. Like Oedipus in a semi-detached villa, he quests relentlessly to uncover a hidden evil only to find that it is within his own house, in Jack’s case blinding himself morally by joining in the comprehensive fraud, theft and corruption.
But in 2014, one big surprise is how the laughter has lost its edge. The culture of expediency in business now seems so far from unusual that the family’s “shadow market” no longer strikes us as particularly culpable. Nothing portrayed here seems definitively beyond the pale: even a bloody murder drew comfortable laughs. Our response suggests the satire has perished, the black faded to grey.
What remains is a well-designed Ayckbourn farce, where the enjoyment arises not just from events but also from the staging, particularly in the second half as a ballet unfolds of characters moving independently between rooms on Tim Hatley’s two-level set which simultaneously stands for three or four different houses. Nigel Lindsay’s Jack journeys from innocent brother to Godfather as all around him protect their Porsches, extensive wardrobes and Balearic getaways.
Director Adam Penford has already cut his teeth on Ayckbourn at the NT by assisting on Season’s Greetings here in 2010, and he and his cast hit the right tone and pace. (Even the programme joins in, with Gerard Monaco receiving five anagrammatic credits as the Italian brothers.) If we are left lamenting the differences between the still-mutable world in which the play was written and the present-day one in which it is staged, perhaps that is also the point of this revival.