How long can a man remain honest when all around him are bending rules, stretching the truth and bending over backwards to limbo under the pole of common decency in an attempt to get ahead in life?
It’s a question that was first asked by Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business back in 1987 when the prolific playwright’s tale of a family more crooked than the nursery rhyme man – who walked a mile and found a sixpence on a stile – was first seen at the National Theatre.
The lengths to which people go to get what they want being a theme as universal as the rating on a deeply inoffensive family film release, 25 years on the play has been revived on a stunning multi-room, multi-level set with a cast that reunites British Comedy Award nominee Nigel Lindsay and TV comedy star Niky Wardley, who appeared together in The Same Deep Water As Me at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013.
As the cast prepares for the show’s NT Live broadcast on 12 June, we meet Lindsay and Wardley to find out about the play, the National and how far their own rule bending goes.
Why do you think A Small Family Business has been revived now?
Wardley: That dark side of society or people, very involved in what works for them, what’s going to move them forward. It’s everywhere. Every man is doing it to some degree. It hasn’t just suddenly become more relevant. This is something that’s been building for a long time. The thing this play comments on so brilliantly is just how normal it’s made. There’s no apology made for it, it’s just how it is, which I think is the darker part of it.
Lindsay: I think a lot of people thought that Ayckbourn wrote it as an anti-Thatcher play, but he swears that he didn’t. He’s not a political man in that sense. I think those arguments are still relevant now, aren’t they? The play was very well received when it came out originally and they’ve been looking for a chance to revive it. The set is quite unwieldy, so it’s quite difficult to do it anywhere else. It was originally written for the Olivier stage, so they’ve been waiting for that opportunity to do it again.
How did you become involved with the production?
Lindsay: I got phoned up by three people separately, who didn’t know each other, who each said “I’m going up for this play; you’re perfect for the lead role of Jack McCracken.” I said “I don’t want to do any more theatre at the moment.” Then my agent phoned and said the National was interested. I thought “I’d better read this.” The first thing I saw was it’s only been done once in London with Michael Gambon! Then I read it and thought “Blimey, are they sure? Do they mean Robert Lindsay?”
How would you describe your respective characters?
Wardley: Anita’s just a dream of a character to play. You could easily dismiss her as just some flighty, dizzy character, because she’s a master of putting on a load of different masks for whatever she needs to get out of that situation. It’s amazing to play because I feel like I get to play a few parts within one character. She absolutely knows who she is, she knows what she’s doing, she knows why she’s doing it. There’s no conflict within her at all. It’s quite extraordinary because usually for the character you always have an element of conflict. It’s really bizarre, but I love it.
Lindsay: Jack is more like me than almost any other character I think I’ve played actually. That’s a bit weird because I’m a character actor really and I tend to play people who aren’t very much like me at all. This one I know exactly where he’s coming from. It was like putting on an old suit. I knew how to play him when I read it. I’m a bit like those actors who like to be as far away from themselves as they can be. With this character it was more difficult in a way because I didn’t have to jump very far.
How did you find rehearsals?
Wardley: Obviously every play needs an audience, but Ayckbourn’s work in particular; you only really work out if something is working when you get it in front of people. The first scene, as soon as we did it on the first night it felt it was where it belongs, in front of people.
Lindsay: You just have to get used to rehearsing comedies and knowing there will be laughs in places that you never thought there would be and no laughs in places that you thought were the most hysterical things in rehearsal. The opening of the play is a surprise party. I don’t know there’s a surprise party and I take all my clothes off. In rehearsals it was intensely embarrassing, but once we got it in front of the audience, they love it.
Wardley: They revel in it.
Lindsay: Which is why people like Ayckbourn are so good at writing. They can see what will happen.
Where do you both stand on bending the rules?
Wardley: I’m quite ridiculously straight down the line with a lot of things. Then I suddenly realise that a lot of people are doing stuff that I’m not doing. At first I’m shocked that they’re doing it, and then think “Oh my God I’m such a mug that I’m the only one.” It’s a really tricky one.
Lindsay: I’m very moralistic about things, then I find myself doing things and thinking “Hang on a minute.” It’s like my Dad. He’s Jewish and would never eat bacon in the house, but every time we went on holiday he had bacon and eggs for breakfast. He’d say “It’s not at home is it?” That’s how I am.
Wardley: You carve out little ways for yourself that makes it acceptable.
Lindsay: My new year’s resolution every year for the last 10 years has been don’t slag off other actors. It works until about February usually. I’ve got mates who never ever slag another actor off, ever. I can’t resist it. Then I think “There are plenty of people who can slag you off.” People in glass houses and all that.
How is it working together again?
Wardley: It’s the lovely thing about this business when you come across people again, especially when it’s someone that you’ve really got along with. The first day of rehearsals it’s so lovely coming in and seeing a familiar face, especially if it’s the person playing the lead. That makes it easier. Hello Mr Nigel Lindsay sir…
Lindsay: London theatre is quite a small industry, so it’s not that surprising that we’re working together. It was the same with Richard II I did with David Tennant. I’ve done three plays with him and we get on really well. In fact I think he put a word in with [Director] Greg Doran, bless his heart. Although he did tell me that the last 10 times he’s done that it hasn’t worked out.
How’s working at the National Theatre?
Wardley: It’s the most incredible place to work.
Lindsay: When I was here the first time doing Dealer’s Choice in 1994, I think it was, the first day I came in and went to the canteen wide eyed and I sat on a table and there were three people having a conversation next to me. Suddenly I realised it was Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Eyre. That’s what’s so brilliant; you rub shoulders with these fantastic actors. But also the fact that you play in repertory means you can have a few days off and come back refreshed to the play as opposed to playing the same part every night for a long time. There’s a real energy here. I really understand now what they mean about businesses being controlled from the top down. Nick Hytner [the National Theatre Director] is fantastic. He’s got such a sense of enthusiasm. I’m sure Rufus [Norris] will do the same thing
Wardley: You just feel like you’re in the middle of something fantastic. There’s energy and life all around.
Lindsay: It’s a proper place to work. It really is.
"I read it and thought “Blimey, are they sure? Do they mean Robert Lindsay?”"