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Review of Rutherford and Son at the Lyttelton Theatre

Justine Mitchell, Barbara Martin in Rutherford and Son by Githa Sowerby. Photo by Johan Persson.
Justine Mitchell, Barbara Martin in Rutherford and Son by Githa Sowerby. Photo by Johan Persson.

This is, in a sense, the revival of a revival. It was the National who played what must be called a central role in this great play’s life with director Katie Mitchell’s production here in 1994.

Yes, it had received modern stagings, notably by the feminist theatre company Mrs. Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, but it took the Cottesloe’s stark and passionate reading of Githa Sowerby’s script to lodge it on the modern map and invite comparisons with the work of Henrik Ibsen.

Until that point, it had languished in obscurity, along with the other typescripts of its late author, who had died in her nineties in 1970. At the time of its first exposure, two years before the outbreak of the First World War, it was automatically assumed that the writer, billed as K.G. Sowerby, was a man.

Unforgivable perhaps to modern sensibilities, yet at the same time understandable since the play speaks of industrial politics and the technicalities of glass-making with an almost nerdy intimacy. It has to since the development of a potentially lucrative formula by old John Rutherford’s son, heir and namesake lies at the heart of this tale of change and decline in the England of the time.

In Polly Findlay’s vivid production, the production of glass becomes a versatile metaphor for much else, as Githa surely intended. She knew what she was talking about. The Sowerby family had been producing glass for the past century. Among the specialising factories in Manchester and the north-east, none was more eminent than Sowerby of Gateshead. The world of her play is dominated by a tough and unsentimental patriarchy. The produce may be fragile but the pressures, precision and investment required to make it are truly awesome. They levy all the resources, emotional as well as financial, which humans have to offer, and the stresses they impose on individual liberty, never mind love, are, in the playwright’s plain view, unsustainable.

In Roger Allam’s fine portrayal, John Rutherford’s cradle-reared chauvinism is all the angrier for being under threat. The business is struggling. His daughter Janet, in her thirties, is entering old-maid territory. She has fallen for his right-hand man Martin, whom the rigid class, or glass, walls between master and servant has made forbidden fruit.

Roger Allam, Justine Mitchell in Rutherford and Son by Githa Sowerby.  Image by Johan Persson.
Roger Allam, Justine Mitchell in Rutherford and Son by Githa Sowerby. Image by Johan Persson.

One of her brothers has already blotted the family copybook by marrying a working-class girl and the other has committed an equal betrayal by going into the church.

It gets worse. John junior has shared the details of his new formula with Martin. Since Martin is the (hitherto) compliant party in the servant-master arrangement with John senior, the question of ownership – what would now be called intellectual copyright – rears its troublesome head. Rutherford is in effect Martin’s proprietor. When he refers to him as “my man” he is being nothing more or less than literal. This being the case, it follows, does it not, that what Martin has belongs also to his owner. Oh no it doesn’t, is Sowerby’s response to the self-posed question.

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that this play drew comparisons with Pinero and Galsworthy. The intention may not have been to patronise, but still, it took until late in the twentieth century, with the publication of the important New Woman Plays, for the focus to be turned towards her closer and more relevant peers such as Elizabeth Baker and Florence Bell.

Was Sowerby before her time or are we simply after hers? Given the presence of the Rutherfords, their threatening, threatened world and the immediacy of their concerns, it hardly matters. Of its moment, certainly, but with a momentum made timeless by the enduring pains of family politics. All wrily echoed by the chorus of four singers and their harmonies of skewed folksiness.

Allam is formidably supported by those playing the ones who undermine him, particularly Justine Mitchell as the criminally undervalued daughter Janet and Joe Armstrong as the mere Man, pulled apart by irreconcilable loyalties. Credit to Findlay and her designer Lizzie Clachan for the stiff intimacy of the household and the visual climax which mirrors the play’s unexpected optimism.

As a window facing an England of past horizons, this is a triumph of transparency.

5 Star Rating

Review by Alan Franks

Roger Allam (Les Misérables, The Thick of It) returns to the National for the first time in a decade to play Rutherford in this new production directed by Polly Findlay (Beginning).

In a Northern industrial town, John Rutherford rules both factory and family with an iron will. But even as the furnaces burn relentlessly at the Glassworks, at home his children begin to turn against him.

Githa Sowerby’s astonishing play was inspired by her own experience of growing up in a family-run factory in Gateshead. Writing in 1912, when female voices were seldom heard on British stages, she now claims her place alongside Ibsen and Bernard Shaw with this searing depiction of class, gender and generational warfare.

Roger Allam, Chris Anderson, Sue Appleby, Joe Armstrong, Joe Evans, Nick Harris, Harry Hepple, Barbara Marten, Nicola May-Taylor, Jules Melvin, Justine Mitchell, Sally Rogers, Sam Troughton, Anjana Vasan.

Production Team
Director – Polly Findlay
Set and Costume Designer – Lizzie Clachan
Lighting Designer – Charles Balfour
Movement Director – Polly Bennett
Sound Designer – Paul Arditti
Music and Music Direction -Kerry Andrew
Music and Music Direction -Sarah Dacey
Dialect Coach – Danièle Lydon
Staff Director -Hannah Joss

Singer – Sarah Dacey
Singer – Roshi Nasehi
Singer – Osnat Schmool

Rutherford and Son
by Githa Sowerby
Running Time: Approx 2 hrs 35 mins, inc. interval


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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