A Small Family Business by Alan Ayckbourn at the National Theatre (Olivier)


It’s sometimes only after a disappointing visit to the theatre that I appreciate the excitement and joy of seeing something special. I’m sorry to say that this week it was the latest production playing in the Olivier at the National Theatre that reminded me of this once again. To be fair to A Small Family Business, it did have its work cut out to impress me after a week of theatre that had already included Birdland and King Charles III, but sadly it fell short.

Written by Ayckbourn in 1987 when he was in residence at the National, the play revolves around Jack McCracken, a man of principles who has left his job in order to take over as managing director at his father-in-law’s failing furniture business. A competitor is stealing their designs and Jack is determined to find out who is responsible. However what he doesn’t realise is that almost every member of his extended family is involved in the fraudulent scam at the heart of the business problems. “Comic hysteria” is said to ensue as Jack’s principles are put to the test as he becomes more and more involved in the antics of his relatives, who will do whatever it takes to keep their actions from being exposed.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the play is not as funny as it thinks it is. Perhaps it was more comical when first performed in the 80s, but it just felt dated to me and there were only a few moments where I truly laughed. Overall it felt distinctly average and predictable. This could be a matter of generational taste, as the majority of the audience around me were older than I am and seemed to be enjoying themselves and I’m sure it will therefore do well appealing to a certain market. However it is certainly the least favourite of all the Ayckbourn plays I have seen so far.


The acting is good, but this couldn’t overcome what seemed to be a rather dull play (which isn’t helped by the 2 hour 45 minute running time), during which I became quite bored. I did not care about any of the characters enough to be interested about the outcome and many were one dimensional, which was a great shame (and no fault of the actors). Nigel Lindsay, who I always enjoy seeing on stage (most recently as a fantastic Bolingbroke in the RSC’s Richard II), is very good as Jack and most of the lines that did make me laugh were his. Niky Wardley is a lot of fun as his sister-in-law Anita, who is very much the boss of the underhanded actions and has a penchant for kinky escapades with Italian mobster-style characters. Although, despite her being great in the role, even this character failed to capture my interest.

The play has a vast space to fill in the Olivier and would have been better served by the Lyttelton, which has demonstrated in the past it is more than capable of staging a large, multi-levelled stage. In fact, whilst watching this production I couldn’t help but recall Season’s Greetings, set in a similar house to this one. The key difference for me however was that I found that Ayckbourn play and its dysfunctional family incredibly funny (and even cared about what happened to most of them). I could have done with Mark Gatiss’s puppet show to actually make me laugh!

No doubt it will appeal to some, who will find it a pleasant enough outing to the theatre and there’s bound to be a new play rolling in to the Olivier soon that I will enjoy. Not everything I see can be superb, but I would say that if you have a choice as to which production in the Olivier to see over the coming months, stick with the excellent King Lear!

A Small Family Business runs at the Olivier, National Theatre until 27th August 2014 (and tickets for performances from 1st June go on general sale on 17th April).




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