Family Business

Tue 25th – Sat 29th October 2011

reviews

James Fennemore

at 22:00 on 25th Oct 2011

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It seems there’s nothing quite as reliable as a domestic comedy of manners. It’s a genre that works for Julian Mitchell, whose Family Business delivers an excellently crafted, charmingly witty evening’s entertainment.

William, the newly wheelchair-bound CEO of the family travel agency, is celebrating his birthday, joined by his four adult children. Yet the tension within the household, exacerbated by revelation upon revelation, makes the gathering something quite other than a convivial affair. From relationships to veganism, and from the future of the business to the future of the Earth itself, the play examines the thoughts and concerns of a fraught 21st-century bourgeoisie.

Sharp characterisation is crucial to the play’s success. Some of the cast, however, stand out more than others. Gerard Murphy is, as expected, excellent as the hassled, world-weary father, savagely commercial, yet desperate to keep at arm’s length from an urban monotony. Anna O’Grady delivers an engrossing performance, the love-torn and headstrong daughter, delightfully dismissive of her elder sister’s fraught prissiness. Characters that could have been flat and unmemorable, such as Solomon (William’s African carer) and Hugo (his environmentally obsessed Guardian-wielding son) gained welcome definition in the second act.

Ruari Murchison’s set is striking, offering the minimalist frame of a barn conversion cocooned in a glorious vista of Welsh hillside. It is both a remote battlefield wherein the domestic struggle might be played out, and a constant reminder of the comparative triviality of the familial woe, set out against a vast expanse of natural serenity.

Family Business may not be an ostensibly innovative production, but, like other plays of its type, it finds distinctiveness through the nature of its subject matter, not through dramatic style. Challenging attitudes towards sexuality and preconceptions about family identity, Mitchell’s play manages to provide both wonderful entertainment and provocative food for thought. In its depiction of the struggles of a modern wealthy family, it serves as something of a British August: Osage County, with resonances of King Lear to boot.

Fast-paced and consistently entertaining, Family Business is an excellent production. Balancing poignancy with hilarity, it rightly earns its place near the top of an ever-popular genre.

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Rebecca Loxton

at 01:18 on 26th Oct 2011

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The play begins fairly promisingly, but fails to live up to expectation. By the second half, the family saga has descended into melodrama. Audience members check their watches as the play ticks through its second hour; nonetheless, the script succeeds in drawing laughs until the curtain finally falls.

A new play by Julian Mitchell, Family Business is an Oxford Playhouse and Watford Palace Theatre co-production. A family reunion in a converted barn in the Welsh borders leads to the resurface of sibling rivalries, the stirring up of family tensions and the surprise revelations of long-buried secrets. The premise is rather hackneyed, but nonetheless provides potential for the play to ponder the strains of present-day family life.

However, instead of taking two or three ideas to properly reflect upon, the script attempts to tackle several big themes. Loneliness, illegitimate children, snobbism, social class, climate change, the financial crisis, ageing, homosexuality, even incest all receive a nod. The play has bitten off far more than it can chew, and each issue is dealt with only perfunctorily.

As the first half draws to a close, the plot twists become all too implausible and begin to border on the ridiculous. The fact that the family had been unaware for months that their son and brother had had a baby is one of the most minor of the plot’s blunders. It is from then on difficult to take the play seriously or engage with any of the themes, all given a cursory treatment as the play hurtles towards an all-too neatly wrapped-up conclusion.

The treatment of climate change is particularly heavy-handed. Younger Hugo’s acerbic comments are witty, but his rant turns into a diatribe that makes the audience feel it is being lectured, or has accidentally wandered into a dreaded ecological ‘issue’ play.

While the plot itself leaves a lot to be desired, the play is well-acted throughout. Gerard Murphy provides a polished performance as grumpy old patriarch. Vegans, missionaries and Americanisms are just a few of the well-deserved targets of his caustic remarks. The other actors work well as an ensemble, a believable bunch of bickering siblings, resentment simmering between them. The tranquil backdrop of the Welsh hills, an expanse of calming green, works well as a counter-part to the explosion of family tensions on stage.

The script is overly long, and some of the dialogues could be halved in order to make the play more engaging. Overly plot-driven, the play would also greatly benefit from a smaller emphasis on narrative twists and thrills and a more considered treatment of a few of the themes that arise.

According to the whispered mutterings of fellow audience members, others also seemed to feel the need to suspend disbelief but their scepticism about some aspects did not appear to hinder their enjoyment of the show.

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