Chichester Festival Theatre
Opened 25 July, 2000

In her largely delightful Much Ado in Regent's Park this summer, Rachel Kavanaugh's approach as director is to take one or two ideas principally to set the play at the end of World War II and run the whole nine yards with them. She adopts the same method with Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business at Chichester, with altogether less charming results.

Her guiding principles appear at first to be intrinsic to the piece, but both turn out to be fatally misconceived. They are, simply, that this is an Alan Ayckbourn play, and that it is from the 1980s. On the latter score, period pop is played before and after each act, from everyone's alleged favourite "Karma Chameleon" to the knowing smirk of the Pet Shop Boys' "Suburbia" as a play-out. Moreover, the whole extended family speaks in that annoying stage-South London twang not quite Loadsamoney, but sometimes not far from it. It's an accent we are used to in Nigel Planer's characterisations, but surely not everyone has to join him; there are more discreet ways of signifying that these are, at root, proles making good.

Because Ayckbourn doesn't write about proles; he writes simply about ordinary people, the middle classes in the broadest sense to which effectively we all now belong. But Kavanaugh's production allows the comfortable Chichester audience to patronise the characters with their laughter, and so ignore the more universal indictments in the play and let themselves off the hook. For she is conscious of directing "an Ayckbourn play" rather than this play. She falls prey to the broadly held fallacy that Mr A is an inconsequential boulevardier and little more. It is a prejudice understandable in a casual theatregoer, unforgivable in a director.

As naively honest Jack (Planer) investigates corruption in the family furniture business only to find that all his relatives are on the take, it's not hard to spot a vein of indictment of the venality and acquisitiveness of the Eighties. You could even argue that Planer's Jack is a kind of more banal, suburban Oedipus, driven by his thirst for truth and openness to uncover the wickedness in his own home... and eventually even putting his own eyes out, in the sense of turning a blind eye as the corruption continues and intensifies. Yet this production is quite devoid of any such citric tang. The family (which also includes Serena Evans, Issy van Randwyck and John Nettleton) give us too easy a ride. Only Christopher Luscombe as private investigator Hough shows any propensity towards the shadows, as he mutates his usual campery into a more menacing kind of prissiness. And even his climactic murder draws open, unambiguous laughs at a point when they should stick in our throats. Kavanaugh and her cast fail by pleasing the audience too much.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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