Theatre in Wales

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Fluent action masks a leaky script

At Theatr Clwyd

Theatr Clwyd Cymru- A Small Family Business , Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Theatr Clwyd Cymru , May 17, 2010
At Theatr Clwyd by Theatr Clwyd Cymru- A Small Family Business Terry Hands’ shiny revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s thirty-third play has an undoubted star. It’s on stage before the lights have even dimmed and it is Max Jones’ set, recreating the original 1987 National Theatre production. The sawn-off front of an executive villa, it spans the width of the sizeable stage and incorporates a fully fitted sitting room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, hall and landing. The production’s rich detail takes in the composite family portrait, the chrome kitchen chairs, the repro furniture, the plasticky watch-calculator, the now impossibly clunky Walkman and earphones, the stacked silver hi-fi, the eighties big hair of Charlotte Gray’s teenage Sammy.

Alan Ayckbourn has two prime virtues as a dramatist. One is his constant innovation in form, stretching both the use of stage space and playing with time sequences. Here the escalating action in the second act turns the multiple rooms into different homes that host scenes played out in parallel. In truth the speed and fluency of action masks the fact that the script is not that comic.

Sherry Baines, an enlivened new face at Mold, brings to wife Poppy a luminosity and presence that successfully covers over the fact that the character has not much to do dramatically. On his first entrance Llion Williams’ Benedict Hough is unrecognisable with his rounded shoulders, his horrible coat, quaint briefcase, brushed down hair and brown shoes. Dyfrig Morris’ Desmond, the company director with his dream of escape to a Majorcan restaurant, habitually pats down his greasy hair before answering the telephone.

The look of Harriet, the dog-obsessed, anorexic with a penchant for gorging on Kendal Mint Cake, is borrowed from Auntie Vera in the Giles’ cartoons. As played by Catrin Aaron she is a frowsty, lip-twitching horror. Hilary Tones’ Anita with her leather skirt and her leopard skin print shoes is all opulent chavvishness. The character’s public display of S-M bustier and thigh-high boots looked tacky in 1987; with the changes in the last couple of decades that has not changed.

Great claims have been made for this script. “The central political play of the decade” says Ayckbourn’s biographer. “A prophetic social document” that foreshadows the credit crisis says another critic. Not really. The difference is colossal. For a director of a small company the risk is total. The whole point of the investment banks’ conversion from partnership to public status was that it neutralised any personal liability; hence the encyclopedic quantity of writing on the loss of moral hazard.

There is an Ayckbourn play that is prophetic. The one that preceded “A Small Family Business” “Woman in Mind” tackles head-on consumer fantasies of perfection, simply beyond the average human being. It is a play well deserving of a revival.

The plot here is a deck of cards. As the details are skimpy it is hard to discern what crime has taken place. It looks more as though the doings at Ayres and Graces might be grounds for civil rather than criminal action. The plot depends crucially on a private investigator being brought in. This is illogical. All Jack McCracken has to do is to skim his invoices and stock control system. It is absurd that the Mob should announce its heroin smuggling methods to a leaky family in Britain.

The plotting is so lacking in specifics that the Guardian and I diverge in understanding exactly what Richard Elfyn’s spivvy Clifford is up to. This under-worked plot is the reason “A Small Family Business” lacks the resonance and metaphor that Harley Granville Barker in 1905 achieved with his similarly themed “The Voysey Inheritance.”

The script contains a coded line of reference to fellow playwright Alan Bennett. His 1985 script “A Private Function” also dealt with low-level corruption. The set contains one puzzle, a six by four photo of Rita Hayworth on the lower shelf of the telephone table. A prop does not turn by accident at a Terry Hands production. Ms Hayworth died the year of the first production. A famous victim of Alzheimer’s maybe her presence is a coded rebuke to a script which milks senile dementia for its supposed hilarity. Black humour can go anywhere, use anything but for those in proximity to senile dementia its exploitation for comedy is irredeemably unfunny.

Excellent support from Francois Pandolfo, Franco F Spandolio, Randolfo Piscano, Napolion D Rascoff and Adolfo P Franscon as various dubious, hyper-sexed and plummy-voiced members of the Rivetti clan.

A programme note, presumably contracted-out, presents pilfering at work as a modern phenomenon cosily ascribable to neo-liberalism. It is a silly and tendentious reduction of a rich human sociology. Whether born out of indolence or ideology the author only reveals his ignorance of important earlier work like Gerald Mars’ 1983 “Cheats at Work. An Anthropology of Workplace Crime.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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