A Small Family Business | Chichester Festival

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Ayckbourn in Chichester: a phrase to freeze the blood of those of us less than gripped by goings-on behind middle-aged suburbia's net curtains. A Small Family Business was hailed on its 1987 National Theatre debut as one of its author's more abrasive offerings, confronting as it did the then topical issue of Thatcherite greed. But, on the eve of the Scarborough bard's return to the South Bank - his twin plays House and Garden open next week - Rachel Kavanaugh's production left this viewer struggling to distinguish the play from Ayckbourn's usual bleak but wafer-thin domestic farces.

Ayckbourn in Chichester: a phrase to freeze the blood of those of us less than gripped by goings-on behind middle-aged suburbia's net curtains. A Small Family Business was hailed on its 1987 National Theatre debut as one of its author's more abrasive offerings, confronting as it did the then topical issue of Thatcherite greed. But, on the eve of the Scarborough bard's return to the South Bank - his twin plays House and Garden open next week - Rachel Kavanaugh's production left this viewer struggling to distinguish the play from Ayckbourn's usual bleak but wafer-thin domestic farces.

It's a black comedy, revived in unthreatening pastel shades. It need hardly be related that Ayckbourn locates his action in the kitchens and living rooms of an extended family whose lifestyles won't be at all unfamiliar to their Chichester audience. The Ayres are gathered to celebrate the accession of Poppy's husband Jack to the managing directorship of their shared furniture enterprise. Jack, played by Nigel Planer, announces that his reign is to be built on honesty and trust, a matter of no small alarm to his relatives, who - in cahoots with five Italian brothers represented here in archetypal "funny foreigner" tradition - are engaged in royally ripping off the family firm.

The surrounding detail is unmistakable Ayckbourn: couples futilely despise one another, teenagers call adults "pukeface", and wives ask husbands, accusingly, "do you think I like going to work?" There's a bent private dick, too, who - deliciously fey and oleaginous in Christopher Luscombe's performance - meets a grisly end.

Something of the force of Ayckbourn's anti-corruption satire is lost, however, in trying to link "industrial espionage" - another term for "daylight robbery", says senile ex-MD Ken - with pocketing paperclips at work. "Everybody works little fiddles," says Serena Evans's wifely wife, Poppy, "that's what the system's designed for". Well, quite - and by censuring even those "little fiddles", honest Jack loses credit with an audience who're otherwise invited to identify with him.

It doesn't help that Planer - so impressive recently both in Chicago and as a hypochondriac crook in last year's High Life at The Bush - is a little adrift here. Like his co-stars, he's playing a caricature - in this case, of dim decency - when the play desperately needs to be taken seriously. The result is a satire of the gentle variety, betraying little sense of the pain or confusion underpinning the various compromises and hypocrisies Ayckbourn reveals.

Jack's own descent into moral murkiness seems correspondingly unlikely, although the credibility gap widens into a Grand Canyon when Ayckbourn embroils this dynasty of doltish swindlers in heroin trafficking. No matter, if A Small Family Business sought only to make us laugh. But its final image, of daughter Sammie slumped over the toilet, her arms punctured with needle-marks, clearly aspires to real dramatic clout. That necessitates our believing in what's gone before, and, in a production played purely for laughs, we don't.

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