National Theatre Live’s latest offering is Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business, now playing in The Olivier Theatre until August 27, 2014. I saw it, per usual, at the local cinema last Thursday, five hours after it was filmed live in London and almost five years to the day after the very first NT Live taping. Happy Birthday to NT Live! You are still a marvel.
So. Who’s Alan Ayckbourn?
Sorry. Who’s Sir Alan Ayckbourn?
A giant—perhaps the giant—of British playmaking. Not just playwriting, mind you, for in addition to having written nearly eighty plays, he’s also a director:
“…[W]riting, for me, is in a sense only the preparatory notes for the directing process; directing is the continuation and completion of the writing.”
Ayckbourn excels at writing domestic scenes—scenes in sitting rooms and gardens, around kitchen and coffee tables, between the sheets and the slamming of doors. Trysts, tiffs, and rifts. Rapture and rupture. Ardor, furor, bawling and brawling. Romps. Rows. Blowups and meltdowns. I never miss an Ayckbourn if there’s one on—I know there’s a good chance an Anglophile like me will laugh a lot. One feels in very good hands.
I was lucky enough to be living in London in 2000 when The National staged two completely standalone plays with interlocking narratives and a common cast. That’s called a diptych, and this one, written by Alan Ayckbourn, was called House and Garden. The characters moved back and forth between one stage set as a country house drawing room and another set as the garden just outside. The audience got two wonderful evenings out of the bargain. It didn’t matter which play you saw first, or indeed whether you even saw both.
Until June 26 Ayckbourn is directing three of his plays in Manhattan, and the reviews have been favorable. In September at his home theatre in Scarborough he’ll debut his latest work, Roundelay, a series of five short plays that will be performed in a random order chosen by an an audience member each evening.
A Small Family Business was last performed at The National in 1987, the year it was written. It drops us in amidst a suburban middle-class family for one week in winter. Jack McCracken, an upstanding, principled man, takes over his wife’s family furniture manufacturing business to discover that most his in-laws are, well, outlaws.
Poppy, his wife, tries to explain:
“Everybody—everybody but us, that is—everybody else bends [the system] a little; just a little bit here or there; and they don’t quite declare that; and they tell a little lie about that. Not dishonest, Jack, just a little bit fuzzy round the edges sometimes…”
To be fair, “fuzzy” is underplaying it a bit. In his book The Crafty Art of Playmaking, Ayckbourn says the play is actually about the following
Samantha McCracken, Jack’s 16-year-old daughter, is the play’s only teenager. It’s her shoplifting of some shampoo and eyeliner that prompts her father to make the first of an increasingly poor lot of decisions that lead him down the gangster path, as it were.
Poor Sammy. In her Dr. Martens and heavy eye-liner, hair pulled back severely and toting Intercourse by the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin around a family party. Twisting away from affection and attempts at conversation.
It’s true her own father doesn’t try very hard. The first interaction we see between Jack and his daughter goes like this:
SAMANTHA: Hallo, Dad.
JACK: Didn’t see you there. All right, then?
SAMANTHA: Yes, I’m all right.
(They appear to have run out of conversation…Jack goes back into the hall.)
Didn’t see you there.
It becomes rather obvious that almost no one is seeing Sammy clearly, including Sammy. She’s set apart, on the periphery, often retreating to her room, and displaced even there by her visiting niece. If Sammy’s longing for connection—and I suspect she is—like most teenagers, she’s not exactly helping her cause, declaring ugly hatred for babies and dresses, sulking, and shoplifting to stave off boredom and support an experimentation with drugs.
The adults should know better, of course. But even as Sammy taunts “[Dad] might even talk to me” as her mother tries to keep the peace, and then, according to the script, grows more “dazed” as the play wears on, no one moves to get her to open up or to feel any joy. There’s too much self-absorbed consumption and wheeling and dealing for that.
She’s all right, she asserts when Jack poses his stock question both on page 10 and again on page 109, very near the end.
But then something curious: Just before blackout, The National’s production gives us a parting glimpse of Sammy, spotlit and alone upstairs. That’s the moment that sticks with me.
Of course, she’s not all right at all.
As if a wildly prolific and successful career writing and directing weren’t enough, Alan Ayckbourn put out a book on both subjects in 2002. In The Crafty Art of Playmaking, he sews up decades of experience and gives it to us straight as 101 “Obvious Rules” for writing and directing. It is a fantastic read, even if you have no practical use for the advice. If you’re an enthusiastic theatre-goer, I predict you’ll find it fascinating. Amusing, too.
The takeaway? Plays are a lot of work. One comes away a bit queasy having been introduced to all the balls Ayckbourn the writer-director keeps in the air. There’s the meticulous planning and plotting of the play and characters (potentially a yearlong endeavor) before the actual writing of the script, and then navigating a rather hilariously drawn cavalcade of producers, actors, stars, designers, stage managers, and other staff. The seated read-through on day one gives way to putting the play on its feet; the rehearsal room gives way to the unavoidably fraught tech rehearsal.
A seemingly unflappable Ayckbourn generously and concisely illuminates every phase and situation, noting that pulling the thing off is its own kind of drama.
What’s the key?
To my mind, empathy.
Alan Ayckbourn has a superhuman capacity for empathy. Toward his characters, his colleagues. Even—especially—toward you and me.
First off, he doesn’t want to waste our time or attention: the fewer characters, the fewer sets, the less elapsed time, the fewer reasons to consult the program—indeed the fewer pages in the program—all for the better. No character should exit or enter the stage without narrative purpose, Sir Ayckbourn rules, and most all dialogue should turn out to be relevant to the story.
That is, if a character is admiring the curtains, we’re either learning something about the speaker or the listener or the location or being directed to note the curtains themselves because, in twenty-two minutes, say, they’re going to catch on fire.
Here he is reminding writers about the power of an audience’s emotional investment:
Obvious Rule No. 5
They need to care about your characters. (So you should too.)
And, while he suggests that all important information in a play be conveyed at least twice in the script, he knows we’re smarter than we look (or sound):
Obvious Rule No.17
Never underestimate the audience.
For much like children, theatre-goers will intuit far more than you might expect. And we can indeed hear silence loud and clear:
Obvious Rule No. 29
Explore the unsaid.
I won’t quote from the second half, but in short Ayckbourn’s approach to directing, too, relies heavily on empathy. Even, as you’ll find in the Afterward, for himself and the company, should the show not hit the mark. Ah well. Collect some good stories for the pub and carry on, he says, as Englishmen so brilliantly do.
I have no doubt this keen attunement to those around him—both alive and imaginary—is what made him so successful a writer and a director and perhaps makes him a very nice chap.
Given the above I got to thinking about A Small Family Business and the erosion of empathy. Everyone out for themselves, trampling on one another to protect their interests.
The play takes a very dark turn—and Ayckbourn the playwright his first soul—when the unctuous Mr. Hough (pronounced Huff) is killed in the bathtub while in a scuffle over a briefcase full of money. The text makes no mention of blood; in fact it leaves it rather ambiguous whether a possibly high-on-drugs Sammy fully intends to kill him with the blows that begin in the defense of her mother and sister.
In The National’s production, blood squirts rather fantastically up the wall as Sammy pummels Mr. Hough. It’s a shocking, grisly moment. It’s also very funny. The audience laughed uproariously.
Two nights later, a pinstripes-clad Jack channels The Godfather and presides over another family party. His corruption is complete. Sammy remains upstairs in the dark bathroom. The script instructs simply that she stares ahead blankly until the end, and the curtain comes down on the family drinking a toast to the family business.
But as I’ve noted, The National gives us a last look at Sammy not explicitly called for in the text: she’s sitting on the floor, back against the tub, crying and looking lost and scared.
On Twitter some speculated her guilt over the murder of Mr. Hough. Quite likely. And good on her: whether it’s her searching youth or the vulnerability of her strained relationship with her father or the spunk demonstrated by the on-the-fly invention of the name Imogen Gladys Braithwaite, Sammy is the character to root for amongst her greedy relations.
As noted in the opening pages of the script, Sammy also represents the generation coming up, the one that stands to inherit the world whose moral fabric seems to be unraveling.
In the NT Live’s pre-show film, Ayckbourn points out that while it seems eerily relevant to life in 2014, the current production uses the same script as the inaugural one. It required no updating.
“We’re still as awful as we were then. Possibly a little bit worse.”
Today, Sammy McCracken would be 42. Where could she be? Perhaps a fitting arc would find her retired early on the fortune she made in sub-prime mortgages. Or vacationing in an Italian villa purchased with a bonus paid out by the bank bailouts.
If her parting scene is indeed new to this production, I wonder if it is a subtle nod to what we know today that we didn’t in 1987: that later generations would indeed up the ante in the greed sweepstakes. By giving Sammy’s grief the last word, so to speak, perhaps that final moment is a subtle invitation to consider how we might intervene and stop the cycle. Maybe it sounds a warning.
Goodness, I hear you saying. Wasn’t it billed as a light comedy? …Didn’t some paper say farce?
Yes. And indeed, the laughs rule the evening. I thought the first ten minutes especially good.
But know that Sir Ayckbourn says the best plays contain both light and dark, the comedic and the dramatic. In fact, he says the studied co-existence of both in his plays may be his greatest contribution to modern playwriting.
A tweet from the night of the show:
There seems some interest in whether Ayckbourn is a political playwright. Of course many parallels can be drawn between the 1980’s and Thatcherism and the me-first McCrackens and family. We’re reminded that Ayckbourn says he’s not a political playwright, but honestly I think we’d do well to stop troubling him with the question.
After all, as his book would have it, by the commencement of the run, Sir Writer-Director Ayckbourn has plotted and planned the play, created the characters, written and edited the dialogue, made nice with a producer, revised the speeches, cut and reprinted the script, ducked all interested celebrities, lugged around the star’s emotional and professional baggage, registered deep skepticism at every utterance of the word concept, hired a sunny costume designer showing no sign of manic depression, found a suitably chillaxed lighting designer, attended all auditions and cast the play, planned the rehearsal schedule, ran rehearsals, nurtured the company along with tender wisdom, grace, restraint, and mastery, maintained a strong alliance to his Deputy Stage Manager, exhibited calm throughout the disaster-prone technical rehearsal, done his level best to humiliate no one at any time . . . and above all, kept communication lines wide open with every constituency so as to make his thinking transparent to all.
Therefore, instead of inquiring after his political proclivities, I think we should offer the man a stiff drink and a quiet corner and take up the mantle of meaning ourselves.
And anyway, the clue he gives on page one of his book is answer enough for me:
“No play worth its salt says nothing at all.”
I’d say the same of any theatre-goer.
Find your local venue and screening date for NT Live’s A Small Family Business.
A warm Congratulations to the entire cast and crew. Nigel Lindsay is fantastic as Jack McCracken and also wins for wittiest Twitter feed:
Mr. Lindsay kindly read this piece and sent me this:
Speaking of tweets, here’s my collection of tweets at and after the performance. (Mind, not during.)
Matthew Cottle is very creepy as the oily Mr. Hough (pronounced Huff) and Alice Sykes gives a wonderful performance as Samantha that obviously stayed with me. She kindly read this piece too:
Do note that this production is not, in fact, directed by Alan Ayckbourn. Mr. Adam Penford led all to enlivening the 1987 McCrackens in 2014 rather beautifully, which, it must be said, required a delicious assortment of tacky costumes and sets.
Lastly, here’s a bonus clip of a scene from Ayckbourn’s smash hit Bedroom Farce, performed by Penelope Wilton and Nicholas Le Prevost in celebration of The National’s 50-year anniversary.
If you’ve ever wondered if you’re an Anglophile, this will settle it:
More NT Live Performance Reviews by Lynne Blaszak
Dear Christopher: A Meditation on #CuriousIncident (May 2014)
Othello by William Shakespeare (Sept 2013)
This House: A Fab New Play by James Graham (May 2013)
NT Live: You Should Go