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Review A Small Family Business

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AgentPete

Capo Famiglia
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Difficult to fathom exactly why the National Theatre decided to revive this 1987 farce /black comedy / morality tale, but it is by darling of the middle-classes Alan Ayckbourn, and it is summer... so presumably crowd-pleasing comes into it somewhere.

To quote Charles Spencer’s excellent synopsis in the Daily Telegraph:

“The action concerns an extended family whose members all have an interest in a furniture business. When the founder of the firm, who is in the early stages of dementia, appoints his son in law to take over as the managing director, the new boss promises a regime of rigorous honesty, with every paperclip accounted for. What he doesn’t realise is that the whole family has been on the take for years, and even has connections with the Mafia.”

So there you go. A pungently caustic dissection of the 1980s decade of greed? No, not really. A-politically astute analysis of the ends of Thatcherism? Nope. You won’t find many playwrights less politically-interested than Ayckbourn – politics bore him.

I confess, I do like Ayckbourn. Or at least, I always thought I did. This revival, though, has made me question some assumptions.

For a start, Ayckbourn unerringly knows exactly where to insert the knife into his target... but then, pre coup de grâce, he seems to waver - and more often ends up tickling, rather than totalling.

You could make an argument that this is wise counsel indeed, for while the middle classes enjoy being shrewdly teased about their foibles, they will not smile kindly upon wholesale butchery of their core values. And Ayckbourn isn’t Sartre, although in last night’s play I did think about Sartre perhaps rather too many times.

Thing is, this play is a farce. Or should be. This production, though, has taken much of the fun out of farce, and replaced it with a rather callow, BBC-ish priggishness. This is forcing Ayckbourn to become something he isn’t – a political satirist – and the production suffers as a result. Just play it for laughs, guys, and leave the diaphanous political consciousness alone.

Will Ayckbourn endure as a playwright? Again, I spent rather too much time pondering this last night. Sorrowfully, I suspect not.

He clearly isn’t Sartre, nor does he want to be. But he is no Sondheim, either. The latter’s dissection of middle class mores is, as far as I can tell, timeless. By contrast, Ayckbourn’s comedy of manners is starting to feel as dated as the shell suits and flares in last night’s performance.

I suspect he may become something like this generation’s J.B. Priestley... wildly popular in his day, less relevant as the years go by. Sadly.
 
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