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Reviews of ‘Family Planning’

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The Observer, 23 April 1989

By Michael Dibdin

If Alan Ayckbourn were to write novels rather than plays, then he’d be a damn fool, seeing what most novelists get paid (here here!), but the result might well resemble Tim Parks’s Family Planning. Parks presents a light treatment of a serious theme in a tight five-act structure, featuring a manageable number of character parts and a fully-rounded female role to add depth(do I see innuendo here?).
The Baldwin family’s precarious equilibrium is abruptly shattered when the parents return to Britain with their eldest son Raymond, a schizophrenic engaged in a one-man jihad. Recriminations and home-truths fly as the other children – Graham a proselytising yuppie; Garry, an indecisive loser with altruistic urges; and Lorna, an academic drop-out working as a hack ghost-writer – are plunged into a guerrilla war over what to do about Raymond, how to manage the family’s crumbling assets, and above all, who is to foot the bill. Meanwhile Mr and Mrs Baldwin quietly plan their escape, she into madness, he to another job abroad.

Parks exploits the possibilities of this scenario with great resourcefulness. The ease and economy with which relationships are shuffled and the characters made to reveal themselves, largely through their own words, is remarkable. As with Ayckbourn, one is left with a slight suspicion that the characters, while supposedly free agents, are in collusion with an author who is not so much paring his fingernails as loading the dice. But there is no doubting Parks’s ability to entertain (that’s more like it), or his understanding of family politics in a society where responsibility means signing a cheque, or more usually finding reasons why someone else should do so.