It can be engaging, even flattering, for audience members to be welcomed as they enter the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax, the home of the Northern Broadsides company, by artistic director Barrie Rutter, but for a reviewer it may be rather daunting, especially with the knowledge that Rutter is about to play a tyrant such as the paterfamilias at the centre of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play. John Rutherford senior has made the family’s Yorkshire metalworks what it is, but what it is is financially beleaguered unless he can obtain his son John’s “recipe” for making white metal more cheaply.
Rutherford may be concerned only for the posterity of the business and of his family, but he acts with no less arrogant solipsism than if he had been motivated by the most lustful greed. In pursuit of his own vision he drives away all three of his children: young John by his theft of the formula, Janet for daring to strike up a relationship with the works foreman (from whom Rutherford winkles the formula before firing him too), and clergyman Dick more or less simply for having the effrontery to think of others. He is left the ruler of a barren kingdom but for the deal proposed in the closing minutes by young John’s wife Mary, whom he in turn has abandoned along with their infant son.
Sowerby’s drama was considered a slice of northern realism a century ago, but watching it today in Blake Morrison’s edition, I was struck by its melodrama, which is further accentuated by Jonathan Miller’s production. Miller allows the grim and the sombre their natural head as a kind of baseline, but when emotions run higher he seems to treat the play more like one of the operas which have for some time eclipsed theatre in his career as a director. When Sara Poyzer’s Janet confronts her father just before the interval and her beloved Martin after it, the actors – none of whom is lacking in either ability or commitment – seem to be performing overwrought duets, with voices high and penetrating and gestures grandiose. It is one more factor placing the action in a world that is now barely a memory, together with the furnaces that glowed in the night and the northern character of pride and self-reliance of which Rutherford (and, indeed, son) is such a perversion.