Given the fact that the National Theatre’s next season has few female writers, it is good to see this revival of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 family drama, set in the industrial North Country.
The Rutherfords are the wealthiest family in the town, factory owners and major employers. Mr Rutherford (Roger Allam) is a widower with three grown children: Richard (Harry Hepple), a curate; Janet (Justine Mitchell), a spinster of 36; and John (Sam Troughton), a nervous consumptive who married low and has a sickly baby son.
With them live Miss Rutherford (Barbara Marten), a moral force of repression, and maid Susan – never seen. Mr Rutherford’s right-hand man at work is Martin (Joe Armstrong), with a quarter-century of service, a plain man who holds his place in high regard.
At the opening of the play there’s heavy rain across the drab setting of the Rutherfords’ dining room cum office. Mary (Anjana Vasan), five years married to John and three months resident in the house, is still a stranger there.
Mr Rutherford, referred to by his son as “The Guvnor” rules his house with terror and bullying, repressing his daughter and mocking his sons, while maintaining the family business is destined for John. When John reveals he has developed a new formula to revolutionise the glass-works, father sets a downward spiral in motion.
With a haunting choir of six (oddly only four are credited in the programme), the scenes are set and bookended by quaintly chosen folk songs, and at the close of the second half the National’s revolve comes into play to good effect as the next heir to Rutherford’s fortune becomes the sole focus of attention.
Sowerby’s prose, inspired by first-hand experience, still feels fresh and relevant today, with themes of family, love, ambition, and business tricks. It’s a knowing portrait of a family whose head sees as above all others, but whose children feel awkward in their privilege.
It’s telling that the business passes purely through the male line – at no point was Janet, bright, independent and resolute (“when I take off your boots, I wish you dead”) ever considered, nor was her aunt before her. And it is the strength of a woman which ultimately saves the family line through a detached business deal. No room for sentiment in these dark times.
Directed by Polly Findlay, and designed in a style evocative of the period by Lizzie Clachan, Rutherford and Son is a classy revival of a modern classic.
Currently running at 2hr 45 with one interval after 55 minutes, this play at no time feels forced or dragged out. It would be interesting to see Sowerby’s other work revived for a new audience.
Rutherford and Son opens at the National Theatre on 28 May.
Photo credits Johan Persson.