Writer: Githa Sowerby
Director: Jonathan Miller
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman
Just over a hundred years after it was written and first performed, Northern Broadsides’ production of Rutherford &Son successfully transports the piece from Githa Sowerby’s native Gateshead to the Yorkshire moors. Aided by the strong cast and impressive set, the grim and gritty quality of the play feels incredibly current despite its period setting, with references to banks unwilling to lend and the threat of the family business going under striking a resounding chord.
An extremely important and well-known play – not least of all because it was penned by a female playwright at a time when she had to hide her gender when it opened in order to gain a fair hearing – Rutherford &Son has aged well. With characters who seem they would have been comfortable in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the Rutherford clan’s lives are all dictated by their overbearing patriarch, who for all his successes has created a home “without a scrap of love in it”. His feckless son, John Jr, has returned to the family home with his wife and baby, while his other children Richard and Janet are desperately trying to escape from it. Singularly fixated on preserving his legacy – the glassworks he dedicated his life to – John is an uncompromising and unforgiving father and master, willing to do whatever he deems necessary to achieve his aims.
Although Barrie Rutter gives a powerful central performance as the eponymous Rutherford and Richard Standing is superb as the loyal and forthright Martin, it is perhaps no surprise that Sowerby’s female characters are the most arresting and nuanced. Each is trapped in her own way, either by birth or circumstance, with options severely limited by their gender. Kate Anthony’s Ann is both stoic and steadfast, yet also brings some much needed comedy to the piece. So too does Wendi Peters as Mrs Henderson, a delightfully brash woman who is the first to give John a piece of her mind. Sara Poyzer gives a powerhouse performance as Janet, the daughter filled with resentment at her lost youth yet hopeful for love, while Catherine Kinsella is outstanding as Mary – a dedicated mother who makes a devil’s bargain to secure a better life for her child. The only aspect of the production that leaves you wanting is the pace, as although the slow-moving opening does much to set the scene the first half feels overlong. Additionally there is an incredibly lengthy scene change which adds little other than allowing the audience to shuffle in their seats. That aside, the story is as engaging as ever, and the bold production one that draws a strong parallel between the world of the play and the one we find ourselves watching it in.