Alan Ayckbourn is the chronicler of the middle class. Up in Scarborough, England, where he turns his plays out and puts them on -- or has done for many years -- he looks at people from every angle. He effortlessly gets their foibles and peccadilloes down with accuracy. Depending on his mood, he can shift from melancholy to hilarity and often back again.
He's always worth following, and here's the chance on the HD screen, when the National Theatre sends out the current revival of A Small Family Business, which was first seen at the busy venue in 1987 with Michael Gambon at the head of the large, raucous cast. Screenings begin tomorrow, May 12, with other dates to follow (check NTLive.com).
It's now Nigel Lindsay in the Gambon role as Jack McCracken, the head of the family business in question -- and "in question" is the operative phrase, since just about everyone in that family business (something to do with furniture) has a narrow to broad corrupt streak running through him or her.
Jack is slowly twigged to the little problem at the party that opens the darkish comedy, a celebration of his birthday. His wife, Poppy (Debra Gillett), though she's a garish dresser (Tim Hatley's costumes and set, too), isn't in on the skullduggery, but eventually her brother Desmond Ayres (Neal Barry), a frantic cook in his spare time, is. So's Jack's brother Cliff (Stephen Beckett) and Cliff's extremely garish wife Anita (Niky Wardley), who has a penchant for jewelry.
Though a few others, like Desmond's nervous wreck of a wife Harriet (Amy Marston) and Jack's increasingly substance-abusing daughter Samantha (Alice Sykes), aren't on to some tandem scheme or scheme of their own, the rest are. What Ayckbourn's on about here is watching Jack's attempts to deal with the wandering gang and, perhaps ultimately, discovering his version of the old saw that goes "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Ayckbourn is a past master at making these types funny because of and in spite of their shortcomings. That's to say he always keeps an eye on the detrimental aspects of their shenanigans. One way he does so here is keeping an eye on Samantha as she mopes around the house while others are carrying on devious. Just wait for Paul Anderson's final lighting effect.
And director Adam Penford makes sure it all remains lively, although somehow this production remains more of a rib-tickler than a thigh slapper. Penford and the facile players, each keen at playing Ayckbourn, elicit more smiles than laugh-out-loud responses. Maybe it's Penford's idea of assuring that no one misses the drawbacks to such rampant mischief.
Lindsay leads the players with verve. Also strong are Gillett, Wardley (who does blowzy to a T) and especially Marston with a speech Harriet gives about the deleterious effects of food and eating. Barry, Matthew Cottle as an underhand private detective -- they're all crackerjack.
Set designer Hatley puts a staid brick house with neatly trimmed lawn on stage for the audience to see as it enters. Then, when Anderson's lights dim and come up again, Hatley spins the Olivier Theatre turntable so the house is exposed. The interior, where not only the opening party but also a closing one takes place, becomes the smart metaphor for exposing the truth behind what can often pass for our individual sense of having presented the perfect façade.