RUTHERFORD & SON
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 13th March, 2013
Northern Broadsides is doing the rounds with this revival of Githa Sowerby’s play of 1912. It has been edited by Blake Morrison so the dialect is accessible to a wider, modern day audience, but even so, the themes it deals with are still pertinent today – and familiar to viewers of soap operas, Dallas and even the old sit-com Brass!
Jonathan Miller directs a strong cast in this broadly naturalistic piece. The intimacy of the New Vic’s in-the-round puts us right in the Rutherfords’ living room with this family. There is a lengthy build-up before the patriarch appears – the characters view their hopes and deeds through the prism of Dad’s disapproval – but when the man himself appears, he exceeds our anticipations. Barrie Rutter is in his element as the headstrong, tyrannical father, ruling the roost and crushing his children’s’ aspirations under the wheels of his industry. What makes him compelling is his apparently reasonable nature. He puts his case, explaining why he has treated his family and his workers in particular ways – it all seems perfectly fair and equitable to him; generous, even. He regards relationships as business deals. What you put in, you get out. Because he toiled for decades to lift his family to the middle class, he expects his sons to follow in his footsteps, to pay back what he has invested in their upbringing. The problem is raising his family from the village cottages and a life of hard work, he has enabled them to aspire to other spheres or, as in the case of his spinster daughter, cut them off from the world completely. In the shadow of his oppression, his offspring cannot thrive.
Nicholas Shaw is very good as elder son John, a bit of a dreamer who has hit upon a new invention that will revolutionise the industry and make himself a fortune. But he is naive in the ways of business and patents, and his dear old dad soon hits upon away to acquire the secret formula behind his son’s back. This is pure Dallas. Younger brother Dick is a neurotic and ineffectual curate, treated dismissively by his unholy father – a splendid turn from Andrew Grose. Sara Poyzer excels as the cloistered daughter, frustrated by her life of idleness, who finally busts a corset to tell the old man what she thinks. That she has been having an affair with his trusted right-hand man Martin (Richard Standing, both noble and humble at the same time) is the final straw. She is disowned – by the end Rutherford has no children left. It falls to his cockney sparra daughter-in-law (a very strong and nuanced performance by Catherine Kinsella) abandoned by her dreamer husband, to strike a bargain with him to ensure the upbringing of her four-month-old baby boy. His family has gone west but in Rutherford’s eyes, they are business deals gone sour. He is able to shrug them off and move on to the next negotiation.
Rutter is absolutely compelling, dominating the scene even when he’s not on stage. He is supported by an excellent cast – There is a strong cameo from Wendi Peters as the aggrieved mother of a worker he has dismissed for stealing (although it did seem as if she became more inebriated as her scene went on). Kate Anthony’s formidable as Aunt Ann, who dresses like Whistler’s Mother but is the prefect presiding over the family while her brother’s at work, issuing warnings and admonishments to keep them in line.
Jonathan Miller directs the rows and arguments with an almost orchestral ear. Voices rise and fall; there are crescendos and silences, each as powerful as the other. The timing of these tonal changes is impeccable as the characters negotiate the emotional transactions of the dialogue. Light and shade are effectively handled by this maestro of theatre.
With atmospheric lighting from candles and lamps, the production creates a dim view of the gloomy life of the Rutherfords in their father’s shadow. The final act, in the broad light of day, reveals the empty chairs at the empty table, enabling outsider Mary to speak plainly and get herself heard.
This is a powerful drama, entertaining and accessible. By the end we realise Rutherford is not a monster but a tragic figure, blinkered to love and life by his view that commerce and work are more important than other people.