Movie review: A Small Family Business

By Peter Calder

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The most prolific playwright in the English language (his credit list is more than twice as long as Shakespeare's), Alan Ayckbourn has been the master of British satirical farce for half a century.

The new NT Live production revives a play that premiered in 1987 when Britain was under the shadow of Thatcherism, and introductory and interval featurettes make much of the play's "relevance" in 2014, by way of explaining why the revival plays it dead straight: greed, in short, is still good.

That's hard to argue with but it doesn't really wash: the scars left by Thatcher remain, but this is a different world - and theatre's come along a bit, too. This production is accessible and broadly humorous (though never hilarious) but it has the feel of a period piece and any political bite it may have had seems pretty toothless now.

Lindsay plays Jack McCracken who, as the play opens, has just taken over the running the family furniture business, Ayres & Graces, from his elderly father-in-law (the comic mileage wrung from the old bloke's dementia is a sign of the times).

At an opening party, he inaugurates a new era of selfless family commitment to the greater good, but within a couple of scenes he realises that everybody has had their hands in the till for years and his bold plans are mired in a moral morass.

The process by which Jack ends up proposing a rather different toast in the last scene is engineered with incomparable skill by Ayckbourn's clockwork writing and precise direction and acting that answers all his challenges.

Watch the trailer for A Small Family Business here:

But Jack's descent from the moral high ground comes in lurches that seem dramatically suspect, and we can see where the playwright's going long before the play gets there.
In a uniformly excellent cast, Cottle stands out as a private investigator who is the Mephistopheles to Jack's Faust. But it would be too much to say that the play stands the test of time.

* NT Live is a project of London's National Theatre, in which productions are filmed and broadcast in real time to cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic. We get them here on hard drive a few weeks later.

Cast: Nigel Lindsay, Debra Gillett, Matthew Cottle, Gawn Grainger, Abby Cassidy, Alice Sykes, Samuel Taylor, Stephen Beckett, Niky Wardley, Neal Barry, Amy Marston, Amanda Hadingue
Director: Adam Penford
Running time: 180 mins
Rating: E
Verdict: Great production of a classic British farce that seems past its use-by date.

- TimeOut

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