When Githa Sowerby’s ‘Rutherford & Son’ opened at the Royal Court in 1912 it was hailed as the best new work on the West End for a decade. At the time, though, the fact that it was very good and written by a woman was deemed to be the most astonishing thing about it. Today, Northern Broadsides’ touring revival shows the play is still extraordinary, but for more enduring reasons.
It’s clear why Sowerby’s text is often compared to Chekhov. The play is heavily naturalistic: it is set in the front room of John Rutherford, an industrialist in the north of England, whose glassworks is his entire life’s focus. His two sons have become pathetic and hateful and his bitter 36-year-old spinster daughter resents him. When John junior comes to his father with an idea for a new type of metal that could save the now ailing glassworks, it sparks a battle – the father wants the metal, the son wants money.
Barrie Rutter’s stocky, upright Rutherford is a superbly compelling, complex portrait of an indignant, hard-hearted working man. There’s not much to like about him, but Rutter does show us that his actions are not driven by malice, as his children think, but because he believes, blindly and fervently his business must survive whatever the cost. We witness his family disintegrating around him as his brash Yorkshire bark pushes those closest to him further away.
The excellent production, directed by Jonathan Miller, balances an oppressive tension with bouts of humour, while Isabella Bywater’s heavy, dark coloured Victorian set design emphasises the joylessness of this family.
But it’s the script that emerges the real star. One hundred years on, Sowerby’s play, delicately edited by Blake Morrison, with its talk of failing businesses and economic uncertainty is remarkably prescient, while her perceptive portrayal of familial relationships is undeniably enduring.
By Daisy Bowie-Sell