Sir Alan Ayckbourn, the playwright of 78 full-length plays, wrote “A Small Family Business” in the mid-1980s. The National Theater of London is revisiting this production which first played on the same Olivier Theater stage in 1987.
The performance last Thursday evening was simulcast to more than 1,000 theaters in 40 countries and showed at our Sierra Cinema as part of the NTL-Live Series. It will rebroadcast at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Written at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government was being accused of fostering a culture of corporate greed, Ayckbourn created a devilishly funny and cutting slice of the suburban societal pie.
And turning those issues of materialism and corruption (which are still quite topical now 25+ years later) into a high farce is Ayckbourn’s brilliance.
I first discovered that wonderful mind in 1991 when I directed his play, “A Woman in Mind,” for the Foothill Theatre Company.
The blend of farce, fantasy and comedy of both dark and light stripes, was fascinating to bring to the stage. And certainly has much similarity and resonance to “A Small Family Business.”
When Jack McCracken leaves his job to take over his aging father-in-law’s furniture company, his wife throws him a congratulatory party. Jack is feeling very positive about his new situation and makes an inspired and inspiring speech about leading the business with principles of integrity and “trustfulness” with and for all the family members involved.
Shortly thereafter, Jack’s youngest daughter’s shoplifting comes to light in the form of a shop detective’s visit (an amazing performance by Matthew Cottle), allegations are also raised about the detective’s knowledge of deceit at Ayres & Graces’ Furniture Company. In short order, the principled Jack encounters and uncovers that all the siblings and their spouses are involved in a web of thievery and collusion. Without giving too much of the plot away, let’s just say that over the course of the two-act play, Jack’s righteous indignation swiftly erodes in the face of saving the family and the company.
If that sounds serious - well, it is. But in Ayckbourn’s and the National Theatre of London’s hands, this is High Farce with the requisite 7 doors and the wild comings and goings, conflicting intrigues and even a dash of murder. An interesting convention of the production is that the various settings all take place in the one suburban home that stands for all the different family members’ homes. Suspension of disbelief is required but swiftly and easily works to great effect as subplots intertwine, overlap and complicate toward the climax. And, ohhhh, the timing, ah, yes, the cast’s timing is superb.
Particularizing this familial mixture is an adultering sister-in-law having affairs with all four brothers of an Italian family involved in the furniture scam, her materialistic husband, Jack’s brother, who is more in love with his Porsche than his wife, another son-in-law who longs to be a chef but really is an abominable cook and he’s married to a woman who is repelled and nauseated by the sight and smell of food. Clothes, jewelry, pets, cocaine – this play has it all and it’s very, very funny.
If you like to laugh and think at the same time – there’ll be one more showing of “A Small Family Business” at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Sierra Cinemas. For more information, go to sierratheaters.com or call 477-9000.
Sandra Rockman is a local theater director and acting teacher. Her fall Acting, Improvisation and Performance Art classes begin early October. She can be reached at email@example.com or 265-6514.