thu 28/08/2014

Rutherford & Son, Viaduct Theatre, Halifax | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Rutherford & Son, Viaduct Theatre, Halifax

Jonathan Miller teams up with Barrie Rutter for triumphant revival of 1912 classic

Barrie Rutter as John Rutherford, with Sara Poyzer as JanetNobby Clark

“Work, more work and six foot of earth in the end. That’s life,” says John Rutherford. That single-minded work ethic is what drives him on and drives his family to despair and desertion. As head of the century-old family glassworks business going through hard times (the banks won’t lend money), he bullies his way out of a changing world that threatens his control (“I’ve a right to be obeyed”). But he has a messianic mission to preserve a dynastic destiny at all costs.

Githa Sowerby’s 101-year-old play seems an unlikely choice to bring Sir Jonathan Miller out of directorial “retirement” and to link him with Northern Broadsides (for whom the text has been edited by Blake Morrison), the company founded 21 years ago with the aim of having “an all-northern cast performing classic plays in non-velvet venues,” like this old mill.

The Suffragette movement wanted to claim the play as their own

But the lead role suits Barrie Rutter down to the ground, down to earth you might say. He fills the part physically and emotionally, verbally and non-verbally, as he rages round the family home, trying to stem the force of his three stay-at-home grown-up children's hopes and ambitions. John Junior, Harrow-educated, wants to introduce new technology; Richard wants to make his way in the church; Janet, now 36 and blaming her father for being “left on the shelf”, wants love. Rutherford pours scorn on them and even on the memory of their mother, with her “soft” penchant for poetry. And then there’s his embittered spinster sister, Ann, and daughter-in-law Mary, John’s “outsider” cockney wife. 

Sowerby, whose own background was a family glassworks in the north-east of England, had seen her father lose heart as his business declined and move his family to London. She became interested in social reform and political activism, joining the Fabian Society. And she wrote the play precisely at a time when militant women went on a window-smashing rampage through Downing Street and the West End. She encapsulates that militancy in the microcosm of the family as the two younger women, Janet and Mary, stand up for themselves, so much so that the Suffragette movement wanted to claim it as their own, even though Sowerby is on record as saying: “I don’t mean to teach anything. My play is a story, nothing more” (family misfortunes, pictured below).

Yet it does add up to more. Sowerby weaves in many strands – patriarchal domination, the tension of family relationships, aspects of social and industrial change, class consciousness. And there’s plenty of humour.  The play is very much of its time, like Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, for instance. But it is riveting, especially in this intimate space, with traverse staging and the audience raked on two sides, as if looking down on a bear pit as the shouting matches rage.

Rutter gets so apoplectic that I feared that he might have a heart attack. He leads a fine cast. Sara Poyzer gives an exquisitely modulated performance as Janet, ranging from repressed to explosive, Catherine Kinsella brings out an inner strength in Mary, and there’s a barnstorming cameo performance by Wendi Peters as Mrs Henderson, mother of an employee sacked for stealing. Miller’s direction shows a neatly-paced, measured approach with a keen eye for detail.

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