last Thursday the National Theatre invited us to a new broadcast in German Cinemas. Normally I’m watching these broadcasts in Düsseldorf, but this time I was in Berlin. You always feel special when you enter the Sonycenter as here all the big movie premiers take place. The red carpet is rolled out almost 365 days a year and considering the huge amount of teenagers at Potsdamer Platz, I seem to have missed something by minutes. Berlin is full of glitter and glamour. The production I am going to write about could not be more different.
A Small Family Business is about a very ambitious family man with strong moral beliefs, which takes over the company his father in law. Gradually the facade of his ideal world is crumbling and he must learn that his friends and relatives all have a dark secret. Alan Ayckbourn, who has written 78 plays (this one is number 33) and thus is the most prolific English playwright, has created a timeless play. Premiered in 1987, it focuses on corruption in addition to families and social conditions. Even if the press and the current director Adam Penford consider the play as a political, Ayckbourn denies vehemently to be a political writer. For him, A Small Family Business is a story describeing the disease of our society, the questions of morality and decency, and for boundaries. Ayckbourn did a very good job here. And Adam Penford staged the piece with no changes. 27 years after the first performance in the Olivier Theatre (incidentally, one of only four pieces, which was not premiered in Scarborough, Ayckbourn’s usual working place), there was of course thinking to transfer the action to 2014 . But that was not necessary.
The play functions, not only by the great stage design of (multiple) Tony and Olivier Award winner Tim Hatley. He has built a whole house on stage. At the beginning of the play you can see the front, which was designed with great attention to detail. Typical British brick, perfect lawn, white windows. The stage is full of family idyll. Only a few moments later the rotating stage reveals a lovingly crafted stage over two floors and two levels. The front level divided into kitchen, entrance and living room is marked by various flooring and door frames with partial walls. The furnishing is suitable, the colors do 80s justice and it’s decorated in pastel colors. The second, rear level is kind of a bar and the dining room which you do not get to see. On the second floor there is the master bedroom, bathroom and two further bedrooms who are used as entrances and exits. Also the costumes blend great into this setting, who Jack Galloway was responsible for. Typical 80s, colorful with shoulder pads and boxy cuts. Even the hairstyles and makeup fit perfectly.
However, the content, as just mentioned, is not so happy. Yes, the British humor is generally somewhat bleak. However, A Small Family Business goes one step further. I had a good laugh about so many things that were really tragic. Jack McCracken (wonderfully portrayed by Nigel Lindsay) comes home after his last day of work. He is about to take over the company from his father in law and wants nothing more at this moment but to get his wife Poppy (Debra Gillett) into the bedroom. He gets embarrassing aware of the fact that the whole family has come together to a surprise party when he stormed the living room in underwear as Eric the Hairy. There you will find the slightly bewildered Ken, formerly patriarch of the company Ayres and Graces. Poppy, his daughter and Jack’s wife. Cliff, Jack’s brother and his wife Anita (of which we are going to see a lot). Moreover there are Samantha and Tina, the children of the McCracken and some other family attachments. Jack transferred the embarrassing situation and continues to make a speech about morality and honesty, which is to strengthen the family. He is interrupted by Benedict Hough (played impressively disgusting by Matthew Cottle) who is in search of McCracken daughter Samantha. She’s just in a pubertal stage, leans on, wears punky clothes and has apparently stolen products in the exorbitant value of £ 1.87 in a shop. The meticulous duty performer Hough makes a very indecent proposal to Jack McCracken. He would refrain from the prosecution of this offense when Jack hires him for his company. First indignant, the new managing director can be determined by ample persuade of various family members to get in on the offer. And with that an avalanche comes loose which Jack has probably never dreamed of.
Someone appears to sell furniture of Ayres and Graces appears under the hand and without lable to an Italian company which makes the profit that could be well used by the Small Family Business. On closer investigation it turns out that pretty much everyone in the McCracken family was involved in the coup. Hurt in his honor but torn between familial duty and moral dilemma, Jack McCracken slithers through the next few days. At home another disaster is under the offing, as daughter Sam seems – unnoticed by all others – to slip into drug problems. Jack’s brother in law wants to settle with company funds to Spain, Anita has an affair with five Italian brothers (who bought and re-sold the unlabeled furniture), which is not that intelligent brother doesn’t notice at all. The limited husband of his daughter also depends to be somehow included. Jack is corrupted piece by piece by his own family.
At the end there is the first (and only?) shown stage death of a character in Alan Ayckbourn’s plays and the question: What now? The author does not disclose the solution to this problem to us. Instead, many more questions remained open for me. For example, Poppy. She mentioned several times, that this is all her fault. Why, I wonder. Of course, she has pushed her husband to protect her daughter from a penalty at the beginning of the play. But that being responsible for the tragedy of the play? Maybe I missed something. The biggest question mark for me is Samantha, the cause of the misery. Even though I have understood that it is obviously her job to be downright invisible, I wonder why her character is not further illuminated. After all, she is also mainly responsible for the escalation of the play. I would have loved to know more about this.
Although this review has not been showing my usual euphoric wording, I am absolutely thrilled with this production. It is fascinating to watch the McCracken at their slow decline. The parts are great casted and the actors have shown a great performance. The reason why I decided for a factual, detailed review, is the subject of A Small Family Business. Alan Ayckbourn likes to quote a lady he heard to say the following in one of 1987’s performances:
“If I’d known what I was laughing at when I was laughing, I wouldn’t have laughed.”
True words. A Small Family Business is definitely one worth seeing, timeless and highly topical piece. Whomever has the opportunity to see it, GO! As far as I know, there is also a radio adaptation, which I am trying to track down. As always, the National Theatre has delivered a stunning work here, which as so often lets me question the standards of the German Theater.
Auri der Theatergeist