A Small Family Business doesn’t feel as one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. It’s not so much it is dated, but a strong plot executed masterfully leaves little space for subtleties in characterisation. While some characters make a strong impression, others lack internal life. As a result, the play comes across as an enjoyable diversion but without the cutting despair we are used to in other Ayckbourn plays. The problem is compounded by the production being staged at the Olivier. The vast space makes the play appear more vague, less intimate than it would have been otherwise.
Having said that, there are many pleasures to be had. The banality of corruption and moral corrosion unfolds with masterful inevitability. (At a time when the papers are – once more – full of the MPs expenses scandal, the argument is hardly dated). The production, directed by Adam Penford, balances disparate elements well and the farcical tone of the first half creates a false sense of security that highlights the darker elements in the second.
One of the main pleasures comes from Matthew Cottle’s performance as Benedict Hough. Cottle – a veteran of Ayckbourn plays – gives a performance of masterful illusion: the character starts as unimportant, a study in sweaty pragmatism and hunched indifference. But these qualities have such drive he takes over the play, and steers it effortlessly into much darker territory. His demeanour remains unchanged but the shadow of the character looms larger and darker as the play moves along. Nigel Lindsay as Jack navigates honesty, confusion and the exhilaration of finally giving in with grace and ease. Niky Wardley as Anita steals many of the scenes she is in with brilliant comic timing and irrepressible confidence. Alice Sykes as Samantha McCracken brings a welcome freshness and modern air in contrast to the stuffiness of her surroundings.
I was less enamoured with the dollhouse of a set: it makes the play less real than it should be, a fable of a far away land. (The way the same set stands for the houses of all the characters is interesting though. It alludes to a cinematic quick-cut sensibility).
The production is funny, diverting and a thoroughly good evening, I just wish it was more vital than that.
SPOILERS for both A Small Family Business and King Lear, please don’t read ahead if you don’t want to be spoiled: I was amused that both productions currently playing at the Olivier have a pivotal scene of someone being battered at the bath. Amused might be the wrong word when it refers battering someone but I like random connections like that.