Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 3 August 2019
National Theatre programmes are always great. They have a particularly good line in slightly depressing if very interesting essays, especially where plays written by/about women or people of colour are concerned.
The programme for Rutherford and Son is a great example of this. It’s a play written by a woman, Githa Sowerby, who history has largely forgotten despite her string of early 20th century commercial and critical hits. Depressing in and of itself, more so because it’s not in any way surprising. By far the best thing about this revival, at the NT in the Lyttelton, is the fact that it exists at all. It’s a pleasing thing to see a revival of a forgotten play written by a woman, especially at the Nash.
However, the key thing to know about Rutherford and Son is that it’s very boring. I don’t really know what else to tell you because I sort of lost the will with it at many and varied points. Plot-wise, to the extent there is one (which isn’t the case for a good third of it), it tells the story of the overbearing titular character and his desire to protect his business at all costs – including that of the wellbeing and happiness of his family.
The one positive thing I’ll say for it at this point is that a couple of women characters get decent and more interesting (relatively speaking) look ins within this narrative. Thematically, it’s about family, loyalty, the clunking fist of the patriarchy and how to confound it. You’d think those latter points would have endeared it to me – and they are the more creatively explored, no doubt – but the whole mass of play is too dull to let them shine through.
There are two main things that I think account for how boring I found it: the characters are almost all spectacularly unsympathetic and the pacing is off, which is a fancy way of saying nothing happens for almost an hour by which point you’ve already sat through an endless stream of perfunctory family bickering and portentous introduction of the man Rutherford. The longer second and third act (combined into one, mercifully) is better because some plot finally intrudes and the particularly tedious male characters are to some extent sidelined in favour of the women. But still. Sat in a nice comfy, cosy theatre seat, it’s a hell of a struggle not to doze off.
The production looks great, but has made some decisions that I really question. It’s already lost 25 minutes and an interval in preview, but still director Polly Findlay’s staging feels overlong and structurally odd. The one remaining interval comes very quickly and just as things are promising to start to happen. It kills any momentum dead and makes the second half feel like a real slog. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Kerry Andrew’s music, and the decision to have it sung live seemed frivolous. It doesn’t add much, other than in the second half when it steps in a couple of times to slow things down even further than it feels like they already are. Lizzie Clachan’s set I really liked though. It makes great use of the Lyttelton stage and is suitably northern and atmospheric (it’s a bit heavy handed, but I loved the use of the rain effect too). Charles Balfour’s lighting accents it beautifully.
If this show is saved at all it’s by some of the acting. Out of politeness, I shan’t slag off the wandering accents – which occasionally wander to being downright incomprehensible – of many of the cast and will focus instead on the two performances that make the production if not in anyway outstanding then at least watchable. Roger Allam is Rutherford and is as reliably fantastic as he always is. He conjures up a character who is genuinely awful and frightening but also funny and charismatic. The big chunk of act one and the smaller chunk of act three that he’s absent for suffer so much – so much – for the lack of him. The ever brilliant Anjana Vasan plays the best and by far the most interesting of the supporting roles and really runs with it. As ever she’s a complete scene stealer and, in the key scene of the play, goes head to head with Allam brilliantly, finally injecting some tension and even excitement into proceedings. It’s a shame that the rest of the play never comes close to matching that scene.
So, yeah, Rutherford and Son is not my cup of tea. No cup of tea has ever been as boring as this play is for one thing. Not even that crap tea you get on planes. The acting does just about salvage it, or at least stop it from being a complete disaster, but it’s not enough. Save your time and go and see the brilliant Small Island in the Olivier instead.
Rutherford and Son is in the Lyttelton theatre until 3rd August.
I sat in J9 in the circle – the very back row but still a great view – for £34 (not worth it). I saw the play in a late preview.