Rutherford & Son – St James Theatre, London – review by Carole Woddis.

Children’s author and Fabian, Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford & Son is the play with which she made her name in 1912.

The story of a domineering father and glass factory owner, John Rutherford browbeats his three children until one by one they fly the coop.  Personal happiness versus family name and commercial pressures, the play has much to say to us today and has become a firm favourite though for over half a century it was forgotten until `rediscovered’ by Mrs Worthington’s Daughters theatre group, in 1980.

Jonathan Miller’s darkly brooding production for Barrie Rutter’s Halifax based Northern Broadsides company now gives it a searing revival led by Rutter himself, stocky, granite-like, as John Rutherford.

Rutherford pere is based on Sowerby’s own Victorian grandfather, John Sowerby, a north eastern industrialist, owner of the Tyneside Ellison Glass Works which, by the late 19th century had secured large markets in US and European mass produced glassware.

John Sowerby, like his fictional namesake, bore two sons whom he expected to follow him into the business to which he had given his life.  But neither were to follow their prescribed route – in real life or in the play.

In the play, one son, a curate, disillusioned by his father’s hostility moves away, the other flees overseas, to Canada leaving behind a wife and son.  Githa’s own father rejected his industrial role and instead became an artist.

Githa knew at first hand of what she spoke.  But her talent produced a play that, though she had to hide her gender, was lauded at the outset for its Ibsenesque intensity and acknowledged for the powerhouse it was.

And it is in the final climactic moments of Rutherford & Son that Githa Sowerby’s play really makes it mark.

There are few modern plays that can match the bitter pragmatism or reflect cultural engingeering so starkly as that between Mary, young John’s wife, and John Rutherford.

Catherine Kinsella’s small, determined Mary, left destitute by her escaping husband strikes a chilling bargain with Rutter’s intractable paterfamilia: that she be allowed to bring her young son up for the next ten years in return for board and lodging whereafter he will be Rutherford’s, to do with as he sees fit.  In effect, she is condemning her son to an enslaved future whilst Rutherford will get the legacy for the company name for which he has striven all his life.

Rutherford & Son is steeped, from head to foot, in harsh old fashioned virtues of graft and work.  The brilliance of Githa’s play – even more coruscating in its observations than The Stepmother twelve years later (see review of its Orange Tree revival on this site in February this year) is to show how those very values upon which Britain’s industrial might was built demand inhuman sacrifices of self fulfilment and happiness.  For it is not only the sons who are sacrificed but daughters too.

The Rutherford household, as Mary observes, is loveless, ruled by the father, like his glassworks, with a rod of iron.  A sub-plot underlines the effect, with Rutherford’s daughter Janet, ageing and single, making a desperate bid for love with Rutherford’s own foreman, Martin – an indiscretion too far in Victorian England, hidebound by convention.

Class is a big issue here, as much as gender and reputation.

Leading from the front, Rutter is imperious matched by a wonderful cast, from the studiously watchful Kinsella to Sara Poyzer, wrenching in loneliness and a last bid for happiness and freedom, Richard Standing as her working-class lover, Martin – a good company man shattered when he is dismissed for stepping outside his parameters – and not least, Nicholas Shaw as Rutherford’s vacillating son, young John.

A difficult feat at any time to show weakness, that, besides Kinsella’s sturdy realism, Shaw does not flinch is his and the production’s considerable triumph.

Rutherford & Son is at the St James Theatre, Victoria, London to June 29, 2013; see www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Carole Woddis © June 11, 2013.