Small family business yields little profit

A Small Family Business – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 27 August 2014

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.A_Small_Family_Bus_2875957b

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.

Family businessThe 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.

<<Continue to full review>>

Science under the microscope in Durrenmatt’s The Physicists

The Physicists – Donmar Warehouse, until the 21 July 2012 

Thomas Midgley Jr is not a name near to many people’s lips when asked about the most important scientific innovators of the twentieth century. Seemingly destined to be remembered solely as a speciality question in a pub quiz would appear a strange fate for a man whose contributions to science shaped the world and led him to being described as having a ‘greater environmental impact on the planet than any single organism in history’.

It is then unfortunate for Thomas Midgley Jr that the impact described was both an accidental consequence of his inventiveness and wholly negative in almost every conceivable aspect; for Thomas Midgely Jr is the man who came with the idea of adding lead to petrol. Not content with this world health hazard, his second invention was close to catastrophic, as he found a way to improve the process of refrigeration through a compound called Freon. In so doing he successfully managed to invent CFCs.

One can only imagine that after those two disastrous attempts at improving the world, poor Thomas Midgely Jr would have a great deal of sympathy for Johann Wilhelm Möbius, the scientist at the centre of Dürrenmatt’s farcical satire that poses questions on the burden of responsibility on scientists and the ability of state to understand and manage scientific developments. Indeed Möbius is so concerned with the potential capacity for destruction in his inventions that he decides it is better to feign insanity so that he is able to work on pure physics well away from the overbearing hand of the state.

Dürrenmatt wrote The Physicists in 1961, prefiguring the Cuban Missile Crisis but at a time when tensions between the Soviet Union and the West were reaching a new peak. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remained fresh in the mind 15 years on, as societies across the world lived in the shadow of two countries committed to the real-politics of mutually assured destruction.

Charles Spencer, writing in The Telegraph, challenges the play’s value forty years on. It is a reasonable point at a time where the conflict between superstates has faded and the prospect of nuclear war has receded to be replaced by a more existential threat of individual extremists, dirty bombs and cyber-warfare. Josie Rourke’s production is never quite able to square this circle and throughout there remains the nagging sensation that one is watching a period piece; a very well-crafted and carefully staged absurdist drama that is fascinating but ultimately as clinical and sterile as its setting.

That is not to say that it cannot be enjoyed on its own merits. The quality is to the level that has come to be expected from a Donmar production. John Heffernman is superb in capturing the duality of Möbius’ character; drawing out the dignified trauma of being self-aware enough to understand that his brilliance can never realise its potential in a world where it will be handled by those with power but no understanding, but Heffernman also reveals the arrogance that afflicts many geniuses and causes them to underestimate the skill of the opponents, in this case hastening the final tragic denouement.

<<Continue to full review>>