Is stealing a human foible, or an ethical failure? Alan Ayckbourn’s protagonist Jack McCracken, and on this play’s evidence his author too, fall into the latter camp. The National’s revival of his 1987 play is a burlesque on Thatcherite capitalism that combines sequinned and thigh-high-booted camp with deep moral seriousness. A small family business literally, as well as metaphorically, has its house thrown wide open, and no one, from doddery patriarch to teenage granddaughter, comes out unscathed.
Jack McCracken has given up his career in frozen foods to come and work for his wife’s family firm Heirs & Graces, built from modest, British-manufactured furniture. His ambitions start out modest — at a family party, he makes an inspiring speech about the need to stop skimming pencils and paper clips off the office supplies, and only slightly undermines it with his closing note of “sorry”. But after a meeting with his father-in-law Ken Ayres (a convincingly batty Gawn Grainger), he realises that crooks somewhere in the supply chain are stealing the firm’s designs, and selling them at a 20% mark-up. With the investigative powers of the monumentally creepy Mr Hough (played with a sepulchral sliminess by Matthew Cottle), he sniffs out a scam of industrial proportions, and dust-raising potential. Together, the family business is set with putting its filthy house in order.
At first, the dividing lines are clear. Jack McCracken is honest to a fault. The Italian mafiosos his brother-in-law’s wife takes out for dinner, romances, then hides in closets, are corrupt to the bone. There are some hilarious set pieces — particularly Jack McCracken’s deeply implausible alter ego as a Viking lover, Amy Marston’s sparklingly wan Harriet’s desperate helplessness at a party that leaves her clutching an empty ice bucket like a sacred icon, and forceful Anita’s splendid appearance clad in black pleather with a junior mafioso on a lead. But Ayckbourn’s moral universe is of a far dingier hue than its characters’ bright new dresses and cheery furniture, and it muddies them, one by one.
The whole piece is shot through with a deep distaste for capitalism and money – the very act of wanting is suspect, a chink through which corruption can seep. The character of Samantha, Jack’s hollow-eyed, sullen 16 year old daughter, buckles the most under Ayckbourn’s moralising pressures. She succumbs to first medicated shampoo, then hi-fis, the twin gateways to unspecified “drugs”. These “drugs” are symptomatic of Ayckbourn’s very innocent kind of darkness – he doesn’t know what kind of books or music a teenager might reach for to escape the suburban doldrums, or what “bad” people might do, beyond shagging Italian gangsters indiscriminately and wearing lurid clothes.
A Small Family Business was originally written for this space, its artfully dismembered semi designed to fill it to the lighting rig. Tim Hatley’s set feels like a 1987 design with the brightness turned up in cheery post-millennial style – self-consciously artificial, thin and flimsy. It works, but is still “one house”, whereas this play is set in several. As the action accelerates into farce, the different families play out their stories on one set, and this one isn’t quite universal or adaptable enough to handle this spark-plug break from reality.
Nor is Adam Penford’s direction, which is more solid than electric. There are flashes of exquisite nastiness, but other scenes drag into slow alienation. The play’s moral message is both emotive and muddled – Jack McCracken is unlikeably priggish, and his wife unhappy, before they sink into corrupting cronyism. But their journey into capitalist hell doesn’t quite have the seductive glitter that selling your soul to the devil ought to. This production is more naughty than wicked, more heavy-handed than fleet of foot – a down-to-earth grocer’s daughter’s take on a surreal farce on Thatcherism.