BBC Radio 3, 12 April 2009
First performed at the Royal National Theatre in 1987, A Small Family Business is basically a morality-play showing how money corrupts everyone, even those who try to be honest in their dealings. Ayckbourn contrasts Jack McCracken (Alfred Molina) with the remainder of his extended family: while he attempts to sheer his business through rough economic waters, the rest of them pursue quick profits through nefarious means. Anita (Joanne Whalley) earns a good living as a high-class call-girl, while Cliff (Kenneth Danziger) and Desmond (Julian Sands) sell bathroom fittings at cost price to the Rivetti family (an Italian outfit with connections to the Mafia) - even if that means harming the family business. Meanwhile Jack's faither Ken (Roy Dotrice) lives with his companion Yvonne (Millicent Martin) who surreptitiously fleeces the old man of his belongings.
Horrified at the corruption within his organization, Jack employs Huff, a private detective (Adam Godley) to root it out, but finds to his cost that this only draws him further in. Huff is battered to death by Jack's wife Poppy (Rosalind Ayres) and daughter Samantha (Fuschia Sumner); to ensure that the murder is kept under wraps - and thereby protect the integrity of his business - Jack arranges for the Rivetti family to dispose of the corpse. The play ends with a family celebration in which Jack is described as "a good man," committed to family loyalty and the future of his business. Such words ring hollow in the light of his previous conduct; meanwhile Samantha takes an overdose of drugs and dies in her bedroom, thereby emphasizing the fact that no one really cares about anyone else.
Compared to his works of the 1970s and early 1980s, A Small Family Business shows a much darker side of Ayckbourn. None of the characters are very likeable; rather like Ben Jonson's memorable creations, they are all out for what they can get. Anita keeps a stock of bondage gear for her high-class clients, so as to support both herself and her husband in the style to which they are accustomed. Desmond is perpetually on the make, so as to pursue his dream of opening a cordon bleu restaurant in Spain, and thereby escape his shrewish wife Harriet (Jill Gascoine) who pays more attention to her dog than her husband. Produced at the end of the Thatcher period, the play conjures up a materialist world that simply chews up and spits out anyone with pretensions to goodness.
Martin Jarvis's starrily cast production employed the vocal talents of several performers to good effect. Molina's Jack grew more and more nonplussed as he discovered the depths of corruption to which his family had sunk, while Ayres's Poppy just remained bemused, unable to comprehend the fact that virtue no longer receives its just rewards. Whalley's Anita was a sullen, morose kind of person, determined to sustain her way of life at all costs. The same also applied to Gascoine's Harriet, whose dedication to her dog did not prevent her listening to everyone's private conversations on the phone, and subsequently using the information to profit at someone else's expense. Although dedicated to his work, Huff proved equally corruptible, demanding £50K in hush money to suspend his investigations and protect the family's 'reputation.' He deserved everything he got; pity no one else in the family could have met with a similar fate, as it was all they deserved.