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A CurtainUp London Review
Rutherford and Son
Rutherford is a self made man with sons he has educated, one John (Nicholas Shaw) to Harrow and the other Dick (Andrew Grose) into the Church. His daughter Janet (Sara Poyzer) is little better than a skivvy. Even when Rutherford Senior isn't onstage, everyone talks about him anticipating his autocratic presence.
Disliking Rutherford Senior, doesn't make his son John any more likeable, as he is thoroughly unpleasant to his wife Mary (Catherine Kinsella). There is a pattern of wealthy industrialists having unsuccessful sons, often spoilt and wastrels, but here John has something valuable, a potential contribution. He has invented a new metal which his father expects him to contribute to the family firm but which John sees as providing him with a life away from his father.
Rutherford's daughter Janet is 36 and has fallen for her father's foreman Martin (Richard Standing) in a match that would never please her father. Rutherford will throw her out and trick Martin who is loyal to the old man. It is with Mary that we look to for some tough negotiating as she looks after the interests of her son.
The playwright has been compared to Ibsen, but Galsworthy is more the mark in this family drama. Isabella Bywater's set is detailed and dark, oppressive with heavy furniture and a small hearth. I was trying to work out what the curved rubber thing was attached to the desk when old man Rutherford barked some orders into it. Maybe it was an early example of an intercom! Much of the play takes place at the dining table where the family come together. The set is lit by sparse candlelight in this waste-not, want not household.
Barrie Rutter is thoroughly dislikeable as the tyrannical Rutherford, so much so that he doesn't flinch at the prospect of being left alone— no family, no foreman and we feel not an iota of pity for him. If I have a criticism of the play, it is the lack of redeeming quality for Mr Rutherford.
Sara Poyser as Janet conveys such hope as she looks forward towards a life of freedom away from her father but we are clear that Martin does not share her optimism. Nicholas Shaw makes John both spineless and nasty. Aunt Ann (Kate Anthony) talks partly in Yorkshire dialect but not so we cannot get the gist of what she is saying. We enjoy Catherine Kinsella's standing up for her son.
The play was an amazing success for a woman playwright in 1912 before women had the right to vote. The final scene when Mary courageously negotiates a deal to look after herself and her son is the climax of the play but of course, without his grandson as the heir, Rutherford's saving of the firm can have no purpose. It is a sobering thought to realise how much Githa Sowerby was writing about her own glassmaking family, her grandfather, her father and her brothers, one of whom left the glassworks and emigrated to Canada as does John in the play.
Rutherford and Sons was selected as one of the top 100 plays of the 20th century by the National Theatre in celebration of the Millennium. Jonathan Miller wanted to direct this play and with good reason.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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