Rutherford and Son: Theatre Review

Rating: 4

By Georgina Brown

A forbidding wall of rain is falling in front of the oppressively unlovely – and loveless – living room in an Edwardian pile in Newcastle on Tyne where Githa Sowerby’s snobbish, miserly tyrant has effectively incarcerated his family. Having pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made what he calls ‘gentlefolk’ of his family, they are socially stranded, too posh for the working-classes and yet not good enough to mingle with local gentry.

Within, a baby is bundled in the arms of Mary, a slight young woman. The baby’s nurse? Who knows. A bossy old aunt knits and tuts in unintelligible Geordie and refers to her coldly as ‘a stranger’. Janet, who seems to run things, frets about dinner. She has scraped the burnt crust off the pie in order not to anger ‘Him’. Flames lick in the grate, but the emotional temperature is frosty and fraught. Light flickers through opaque glass lampshades, but gloom prevails.

Rutherford and Son is a rare thing, a play about patriarchy written in 1912 and a hit in its own time, but only because Sowerby wrote it under her initials, GK, to hide her gender. Sowerby’s play came straight from the heart. Her tyrannical grandfather, like John Rutherford, ran a glass-works in Gateshead.

It takes a while for Polly Findlay’s always compelling production to catch dramatic fire. Much of the first act concerns the crushing effects that Rutherford has on his household. Every night Janet (Justine Mitchell) resentfully kneels to pull off her father’s boots and secretly meets the foreman, Martin (excellent Joe Armstrong). Her sick, impoverished brother John (a clammy, nervy Sam Troughton) has returned home with his wife and baby. Mr Rutherford has not addressed a word to Mary (Anjana Vasan) because she is a woman and lower class. John has an idea for an invention which could save the business but his father isn’t prepared to pay for it. The youngest son, Dick, is a clergyman – without his father’s blessing. 

After the interval, Roger Allam’s superbly withheld Rutherford attacks – and destroys – his children in turn and the play blazes. Allam’s Rutherford is quietly and devastatingly unyielding. Solid iron. ‘There are many ways of shirking life and religion’s one of them,’ he says to Dick. He cheats John of his business idea. He throws Janet out for going with ‘a working man’. Poor Janet suffers a double betrayal when Martin reveals his loyalty to be to her father, his master, rather than to her.

However, in the final encounter, Mary (a still, steely Anjana Vasa) proves that when it comes to bargaining, none is mightier or more manipulative than a desperate mother. 

Lyttelton Theatre, London until 3 August: 020-7452 3000,