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
“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.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 classic is brilliantly acted and utterly compelling
The Northern Irish stage craftsman celebrated for Dancing at Lughnasa and Faith Healer
All the garden's a stage for an appealing Shakespeare staging of romance and spectacle
The arts hold the key to our collective humanity
Melissa Bubnic introduces her new play about women working in a man’s world
A reflective, potent 'Henry V' leads theartsdesk's stage tips
Incoherent vision results in a (Mac)duff production
Michelle Terry anchors a reflective exploration of leadership and nationhood
Challenging one-woman play about first lady of Canadian politics Maggie Trudeau
Howard Jacobson's much-loved novel is coming to the stage. Simon Bent explains how he adapted it
Rarely performed Gorky play re-emerges as a relentless dirge
Mike Bartlett's ponderous Snowden drama is animated by an astonishing finale