A SMALL FAMILY BUSINESS – Olivier, SE1

DARK BITTER JOY: A PERFECT CONFECTION

This play is vintage Alan Ayckbourn: elegant, polished dramatic machinery serving a darkly comic and rueful human heart. Perfectly suited to a renewed age of acquisitive moral relativism, it actually dates from a 1987 commission by Sir Peter Hall. He invited Ayckbourn to take a break from Scarborough in-the-round and write for the National. The playwright, never in a proscenium, chose the Olivier’s vast thrust stage and split it into many rooms. Now in Adam Penford’s lovely revival, Tim Hatley’s set is a vast brick dolls-house two floors deep, before a glimpsed arc of other houses. This suits the action perfectly, since it happens in three different family houses (sometimes at the same time in different rooms) and part of the joke is that they are identical affluent suburban-estate clones. Differences (like Anita’s bedroom dungeon) are only implied behind the identical doors.

The plot has a bluff new-broom Jack (Nigel Lindsay in terrific and heartbreakingly credible form) come to take over a faltering furniture business from his aged father-in-law. After a pleasingly hilarious opening – a classic farce moment with an inappropriate surprise party, as Ayckbourn tries to fool us into expecting pure comedy – Jack makes a rousing speech about rebuilding ‘trust’ and honest dealing down to the last office paperclip.

 

They all concur. But the whole tribe has been on the take for years, enmeshed in fraud with five dodgy Italian brothers all sleeping with Jack’s sister-in-law Anita, which leaves her husband Cliff untroubled as long as he has his Porsche and boat. Brother-in-law Des is saving up to run away from his praying-mantis of a wife, who has a terror of food, and become an incompetent chef in Minorca. Jack’s daughter Sam is shoplifting: getting her off the rap leads to the first crack in his integrity, followed by all the other cracks all the way to a startling extreme in which one character (no spoilers) meets a fate piquantly similar , if you swop a trough for a bath, to what happens to Lear’s Fool on this very stage on other nights. Excellent symmetry.

 

Darkening hilarity and angry irony drive the tale, with twists too good to betray. So let me just list a few joys: Niky Wardley as Anita , a suburban Goneril in fetish corsetry; Neal Barry’s Des amid clouds of evil-smelling smoke in his kitchen, Amy Marston’s Harriet with her loudly snoring pet dog and hysterical revulsion at food, and not least Matthew Cottle, sinister and pasty, as the private investigator moving from gloomy righteousnessto thrilling villainy (Cottle saying the words “corporal punishment” is worth the ticket price).

 

And let us not forget Gerard Monaco as all five Italian brothers in wigs of varying horror, who is sportingly credited in the programme as various anagrams of himself (Gordon A.Cream, Don Groamacer, etc). And credit to NT debutante Alice Sykes as Sam, the youngest and most betrayed, alone in a grim final spotlight as the family downstairs completes its transformation from Cheadle-Hume respectability to Cosa Nostra. Excellent.
Being away last week and late on the draw for press night, I bought my own tickets (it happens!!) and regret not a penny of it. There’s an endorsement for you..

Box office 020 7452 3000 to 27 Aug
rating: four.   4 Meece Rating
Plus a special playwright mouse for Sir Alan.  Playwright Mouse resized

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