Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 3 August 2019
Githa Sowerby used her own upbringing as the daughter of a Tyneside glass-making family for her breakthrough play, Rutherford and Son, but whether her father was as cold, insensitive and bullying as patriarch John Rutherford is open to speculation.
Roger Allam takes his seat at the top of the table for this piercing story of power and family, ruling Polly Findlay’s brooding revival at the National Theatre with an iron fist and sneering cynicism. It’s a dark, slow-paced but absorbing family drama that shone briefly when it was written in 1912 but was then largely ignored for the next 70 years.
Yet it’s a thrilling Edwardian melodrama and a beautifully well observed character study of a dynasty under threat from progress, familial reticence and rebellion. Allam’s glowering, misogynist, John Rutherford, is a titan whose appearance lifts a scene and escalates the tension in a nanosecond.
He thunders on stage after a long day and expects complete subservience from his family – sister Ann, drudge of a daughter, Janet, John Jnr, and younger son, curate Richard. The resentment from his offspring is palpable.
Rutherford can destroy a person’s confidence with a withering put-down. Poor Dick is demolished by his father’s callous indifference to him and can’t wait to flee. This blunt, dour businessman has devoted his entire life to running the family business and he cares for nothing else.
But times are tough. The firm is in debt and on its last legs, he’s now answerable to a board and the unions, and, worse, he fears what will happen to Rutherford and Son when he’s six feet under. The plan had been to leave it to his eldest son, John Jnr, but the lad has been a bitter disappointment.
Sent away to Harrow to be educated as a gentleman, John has returned to the cold heart of his family with a working class wife and a sickly baby in tow. Junior is lazy, feckless, and workshy and he is resisting having anything to do with the family firm. If he had his way he would sell up and make a better life for himself elsewhere.
The ace he has up his sleeve is that he believes he has an innovation that will cut production costs. The only chance he has of escaping from his father and his destiny, is to sell the process to the highest bidder.
But Rutherford doesn’t operate like that. He will do anything to secure the factory’s future.
Meanwhile poor Janet, at 36, fears she will spend her days slaving for her domineering father. Her only glimmer of hope is an illicit affair with her father’s foreman, Martin.
Rutherford and Son moves at a slow pace but it has moments of brilliance and power. A blistering showdown between Janet and Rutherford is emotionally charged while a quieter exchange between Junior’s wife, Mary, and the old man is every bit as compelling and shocking.
Findlay’s production is evocative and well staged, and Lizzie Clachan’s set design graphically demonstrates the unceasing grimness of Rutherford family life.
It’s overlong and the accompaniment of a cappella folk songs before, during and after the performance is not only unnecessary but intrusive.
However, there are fine performances from this cast of eight, especially Joe Armstrong’s devoted Martin and Justine Mitchell’s downtrodden but fiery Janet.
Sam Troughton gives a terrific turn as the weak and simpering heir apparent who buckles under his father’s stony glare.
Bizarrely, Githa Sowerby’s career was short-lived (unlike her life. She lived until 1970, dying aged 93).
She wrote a handful of plays and short stories between 1912 and 1924 but her last play, Direct Action, probably penned in the 1930s, was never staged or published.
Her biographer, Patricia Riley, discovered the manuscript in a hatbox of memorabilia at the apartment of Sowerby’s daughter.
It’s a mystery why such a huge talent failed to find any longevity with her work but we must be thankful that Rutherford and Son hasn’t been lost to history.
Rutherford and Son plays in the Lyttelton Theatre until August 3.
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