Though never one to seek out sermons or lectures, years ago I happened hear a talk by an Orthodox rabbi on business ethics. The question being grappled with was whether there were any circumstances in which corruption might be permissible. For instance, what if you ran a company competing for a contract in a foreign country where bribery was endemic and your competitors had no qualms about greasing palms? And what if your employees’ jobs depended on landing the contract? It’s complicated, acknowledged the rabbi. But anything other than the goods bought and the price agreed passing between buyer and seller was immoral. “Not even lunch?” joked an audience member. “Not even a smile,” answered the rabbi, which, whether he meant it or not, made each of us judge our little — or not so little — acts of corruption in harsher light. So does this 1987 play by Sir Alan Ayckbourn.
To businessman Jack McCracken (a powerful Nigel Lindsay), who is about to run his father-in-law’s furniture firm, even filching paper clips from the office is stealing. His family heartily agree until Jack’s teenage daughter is tracked down by a private detective for shoplifting. During the ensuing family row, it emerges that Jack’s wife has snaffled the occasional paper clip from work and his eldest daughter admits to stealing food when times were tough. It’s the companies’ fault for making vast profits on necessities, she reasons.
“Well, that’s one down,” says Jack. “Nine to go. Thou shalt not kill. Let’s have a go at that one, shall we?” And as Jack attempts to root out corruption in the family business, it emerges that this is the very commandment he has to contend with.
It may seem a long distance between a crime and a misdemeanour but with great skill Ayckbourn plots the compromises that lead from one to the other. Adam Penford’s production and Tim Hatley’s design fills the vast Olivier stage with a cross-section of a suburban house in which the family conversations and conflicts take place.
The play has been described as a response to Thatcherism and greed. But that seems an awfully limited way of looking at it. It’s more an exploration of personal responsibility and driven by an authorial voice that, at least here, is almost as monumental as Arthur Miller’s. And this being Ayckbourn, it’s also very funny. As Jack, Lindsay terrifically captures the incredulity of a man who discovers his integrity being chiselled away by those closest to him. Niky Wardley as his formidably corrupting sister-in-law is pitched to perfection and there is great work too from Matthew Cottle as an oily, reptilian, pervy, manipulative, blackmailing private dick. He’s possibly the most honest character in the play.
Continuing its programme of NT Live - giving cinema audiences the opportunity of enjoying West End theatre - the Rich Mix Cinema in Bethnal Green will screen A Small Family Business on June 12. www.richmix.org.uk. 020 7613 7498