The National Theatre website currently advertises its revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business as running until the 27 August 2014; given middling reviews and, more damagingly, the desolate swath empty seats all around, this now seems a trifle optimistic. One wonders if Ayckbourn has lost touch with his heartland and whether that distant sound is of Geoffrey Howe readying his poison pen.
If the above analogy seems tortured and meaningless in 2014 then try sitting through two and half hours of Thatcher-era satirical farce played, almost without exception, as if actors were being paid by the minute.
Astute readers may have gathered that A Small Family Business is not considered a success. There are many problems with the production but at its heart is the play. Ayckbourn is a fine dramatist – one whose reputation has grown as the subtle radicalism of his writing and staging has become ever more appreciated – but his work has always run the risk of being too identified with the period that he critiques.
Whereas writers like Pinter and Beckett examine the universal, Ayckbourn’s skill has always been the microscopic. He is one of the great observers; capable of skewering the social charade and unveiling the fissure lines that runs through society, the unspoken conventions of the British that permeates life and ensures everyone conforms to their class.
The conclusion that can be drawn from A Small Family Business is that we have entered a period where his targets are no longer recognisable. It may be quarter of a century old but the world that Ayckbourn has pictured seems embarrassingly quaint; quintessentially English, it is not comforting in the same way that we relax into a Miss Marple and it is not a period piece in the way we might enjoy something by Noel Coward.
With the benefit of hindsight it does not seem like biting satire but instead offers a naïve view of the world. Living in an era where companies like Amazon pay £4.2 million in UK tax on generated sales of over £4 billion, it is hard not to recognise the scale of the ethical corruption of big business. In this work the idea that a small family concern needs to pay off a private detective to the tune of £50,000 does not really hit the mark. It is all a little reminiscent of Austin Power’s Dr Evil:
Indeed one of the more charmingly amusing ideas in the play is the idea that Britain has any small family-run businesses at all, let alone ones that aren’t riddled by corruption.