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THEATRE REVIEW: A Small Family Business/ Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold

Phil Key rejoices in a perfect piece of Ayckbourn staged by Everyman legend Terry Hands

Published on May 6th 2010.


THEATRE REVIEW: A Small Family Business/ Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold

WHEN a writer has 73 plays to his credit – the 74th to be produced later this year – it is difficult to select a best one. But A Small Family Business must be among his top three.

Even high production standards cannot disguise an imperfect play but this is far
from imperfect.
It’s very perfect

Alan Ayckbourn wrote this play on commission for the National Theatre and they certainly got themselves a winner.

Ayckbourn is not seen so much today in regional theatre: possibly because he was so prolific he became a little too familiar and that bred contempt.

Personally, his play titles meant little to me after a while and it became more and more difficult to recall the plots of plays like Joking Apart, Relatively Speaking or Absent Friends.

At least A Small Family Business is a title that neatly sums up the plot. But more than that, it has an interesting theme which, 23 years after it was first produced, still resonates today. It is also very funny.

At Mold, the production is in the capable hands of artistic director Terry Hands, the man who founded the Liverpool Everyman Theatre and went on to become artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He obviously has more cash to splash now than in his Everyman days, and this is a very lavish show with a big set designed by Max Jones in which I would happily take up residence.

Set on two levels, there is a very nice living room, hallway and well equipped kitchen on the ground floor with a lovely bedroom, landing and posh bathroom above. Plus various rooms leading off everywhere.

While the action takes place in different households, the same set is used for all of them, a convention which is initially confusing but soon becomes acceptable. At least it makes for some fast scene changes - indeed, the fastest I have seen in any production. You hardly have time to pause for breath.

There is also a pretty large cast, by regional theatre standards – some 13 actors – and plenty of nice frocks for the ladies courtesy of costume designer Debbie Knight.

But even high production standards cannot disguise an imperfect play but this is far from imperfect. It’s very perfect.

As with a lot of Ayckbourn, it’s about middle class characters but its theme of money-grubbing moral ambiguities could refer to anyone.

Written in the 1980s, when Loadsamoney became a popular catchphrase, things have not changed much.

At the centre of it is businessman Jack McCracken (a brilliantly bellicose Robert Blythe) who has just left the frozen food business to become managing director of the furniture firm founded with “£25, a handcart and a good woman” by his father-in-law, Ken (played by Liverpool actor Tony Haygarth), who has become somewhat forgetful (“who are you?” he asks of various close relations at the opening family party).

Jack wants to bring to the firm “effort and hard work” and, above all, honesty, right down to the paper clips.

The play shows how, despite his good intentions, he becomes corrupted into a world of cheating, blackmail, cover-up, theft and even murder.

The problem is that everyone in the family and in the business is on the fiddle and anyone who is not fiddling is considered to be a mug. “Any fool can be honest,” he is told at one point.

It begins when his teenage daughter is caught shop-lifting a bottle of shampoo and eye-liner. When private investigator Mr Hough (a delightfully slimy Llion Williams) arrives to make the accusation, it becomes clear he will drop the charge if he gets an investigative job in the furniture firm. Jack is outraged and throws him out.

Soon Jack has to change his mind under family pressure and, from then, things go from bad to worse. He is soon to find out that certain distribution irregularities organised by family members are keeping them in some comfort.

It’s a story that could make a serious drama with a strong moral core but Ayckbourn is not that sort of writer. He makes his point with a lot of farcical situations, witty dialogue and great characters.

From the wife who has gone off food because of her husband’s constant cooking, the husband who loves his car and CD collection more than his wife to the wife with a string of Italian lovers (all played by Francois Pandolfo), these are recognisable people just written a little larger than life.

But what Ayckbourn explores so well in the context of a family comedy is just how many of us can accept a little bit of financial immorality and where that can lead. Some ex-MPs might it enlightening.

At Mold, it gets an immaculate production from a director on top form with standout performances. It also reasserts Ayckbourn as one of our finest – and most entertaining – playwrights.
9/10

*A Small Family Business runs at Clwyd Theatr Cymru until May 29.

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Peter Coyle

i wish i had been there…it sounds like something joyous and anarchic...the way the article is…

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Couldn't agree more. This is a super piece. Ken would be proud that not a penny of public money was…

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