Writer: Githa Sowerby
Director: Jonathan Miller
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Less than a year after first opening its doors, the St James has already established itself as a regular destination for discerning theatre-goers. Its policy of providing a Central London stage for the cream of productions from regional and fringe theatres is yielding rich dividends. There will be few better examples of the value of the policy than this Northern Broadsides revival of a play that was a big hit in London when first staged in 1912, but has rarely been seen since.
Interweaving themes of family and business, Githa Sowerby’s play has similarities with the works of her contemporary Harley Granville-Barker. A character asserts that “no-one is good enough for the Rutherfords and the Rutherfords aren’t good enough for the other kind”, describing a family that seems marooned on an island created by the rigid class structure of post-Edwardian Britain; their wealth and power set them apart from the working class from which they have risen, but they face rejection from the upper class to which they might aspire. Thus the three younger family members are effectively held prisoners, hampered in building independent lives and unable to make suitable marriages.
The family is presided over by a bullying, tyrannical patriarch, who has founded his manufacturing business in an industrial Yorkshire town and now ruthlessly deploys brute force and cunning to keep it going so as to pass it on to succeeding generations; he defines life as only work and then “six feet of earth”. One of his sons has joined the clergy and is therefore seen as no use to him, the other has half-formed plans to make his own way, but, having married beneath him, fathered a child and fallen ill, is forced to take refuge back in the family home. There is also a daughter, now 35 and facing a lifetime of subservience and spinsterhood.
As the father, Barrie Rutter gives a giant performance, growling and barking like a caged pit bull terrier, determined to defend his empire against a tide of family dissent and outside financial pressures. Sara Poyzer is outstanding as the daughter, almost retching in disgust as she is made to remove her father’s boots on his return from work, venting her pent up anger and ultimately facing up to her true fate. Catherine Kinsella as the young wife also gives a particularly moving performance in what is generally a very impressive cast. However, the production arrives at this intimate venue after a national tour and the actors occasionally seem not yet to have realised that they no longer need to play to the upper circle; less shouting could have made more noise.
Jonathan Miller’s direction is exemplary, pacing the action to perfection and building up tension for key moments, as in a thriller. Particularly notable is the placing of female characters, sometimes sitting centre stage, powerless to intervene as other characters engage in heated discussions around them. Sowerby was a prominent feminist and Miller ensures that this is not forgotten even at points when the plight of women of the era is not mentioned explicitly in the script.
With the action taking place on a December evening and the following morning, the lighting by Guy Hoare gives the effect of a room lit only by candles and the reflection from a coal fire, while Isabella Bywater’s simple, uncluttered design gives the correct period feel. The stage here is the perfect size to contain this single-room drama and the steeply-raked auditorium entices the audience to become fully involved.
Most of us will have had little previous knowledge of Githa Sowerby. Her writing is economical and purposeful, yet still full of beautifully literate lines which show a real understanding of the different dilemmas facing each of her characters. At the end comes the warm glow of satisfaction that always follows the discovery a rather fine play.