Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Theatre review: Rutherford & Son

When Githa Sowerby's Rutherford & Son premiered in 1912 it was an instant hit until it got out that its author was female, at which point it quickly fell out of favour. It's not hard to see why it might cause discomfort in a time when the Suffragettes were in the news, and it might say "son" in the title but it's the daughter - and the daughter-in-law - who ultimately make the biggest impression. John Rutherford (Barrie Rutter) is a domestic tyrant: Having inherited the family business he's turned it into a very successful glassworks through hard work and a ruthless attitude. But this ruthlessness follows him home, where he hopes one of his sons will take over the business and let his name live on after his death. But it's this single-minded determination that they should follow in his footsteps that ends up pushing them away.

A household bully who avoids violence but prefers to dominate his family into submission, Rutherford's wife has long since died, and his sons have become the precise opposite of what he would have hoped: Elder son Richard (Andrew Grose) may as well be a nonentity to him, having left the family business to join the church; his father's lack of respect for him having spread to his congregation, he plans to accept a promotion to a distant parish.

Younger son John Jr (Nicholas Shaw, in the only dodgy performance of the evening) has become a flake, knocking up and marrying Mary (Catherine Kinsella) while in London. Though the audience initially laughs at the Northern family's digs at her for being from London, it soon becomes apparent their animosity is very real, Rutherford's sister Ann (Kate Anthony) taking every opportunity to make it clear she'll never be considered part of the family. John Jr meanwhile claims to have invented a process that could revolutionise the business and make his fortune - but his father is determined to steal the secret.

Jonathan Miller's production for Northern Broadsides has come to the St James Theatre following a tour, bringing with it an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere, Rutter's thundering Rutherford complemented by the rest of the cast's reaction - the women cowering when he first appears, even when he's barely aware they're in the room. The play also exposes Rutherford's snobbery as a second tragic flaw: Having made something of himself he is obsessed with his children being ladies and gentlemen, better than the people who work for him - but we start to get the impression the rest of the town doesn't respect him as much behind his back as they do to his face.

The play leads up to an extraordinary offer from Mary, but I found equally powerful the plotline of Rutherford's daughter Janet (Sara Poyzer, very good.) Stifled by her father's demand she do virtually nothing as befits a "lady," she's 36 and thinks her chance at love is gone when she starts an affair with the factory's trusted foreman (Richard Standing.) I bumped into an occasional theatre acquaintance who saw only misery in Janet's story, but I couldn't help but see echoes of Nora - three decades on from A Doll's House I see no reason Sowerby might not have been aware of it and perhaps even deliberately referenced it. Rutherford & Son shows things being pretty Grim Up North, with nobody really coming out of things a winner, but for all its bleakness it's powerful stuff.

Rutherford & Son by Githa Sowerby is booking until the 29th of June at the St James Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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