In his programme note for Rutherford & Son, director Jonathan Miller talks about the play’s resemblance to Chekhov. True, in that it deals in the soured emotional landscape of lives trapped and blighted by circumstance against a backdrop of vast socio-economic change. Ibsen also springs to mind. But Githa Sowerby brings her own tart humour and shrewd observation to this 1912 drama, and though it veers occasionally into melodrama, it has a truth and sympathy that hold you fast by the end. It was written a century ago, but sadly its exploration of the emotional cost of a tough economic climate still resonates for today’s audience.
The Rutherford of the title is a no-nonsense northern glass manufacturer (shifted to Yorkshire in Blake Morrison’s tweaked script). Before he makes his first entrance, we hear plenty about him from his family, alienated by his domestic tyranny and ruthless pursuit of business. His daughter, Janet, an “old maid” at 36, scowls and flings the cutlery unceremoniously on to the table. His son, John, bruised by his father’s scorn, talks of rebellion. His daughter-in-law seethes quietly at the way he has ostracised her for being beneath them. Aunt Ann, a wonderfully miserable old stick in Kate Anthony’s entertaining performance, elevates grumbling to Olympic sport standard, topping her incessant complaining with a complaint about complaining: “I’m pig-sick of having to find fault all the time.”
When the paterfamilias finally arrives, Barrie Rutter, blowing in through the front door like a small tornado, he does nothing to dispel our already dim view of him. Indeed, Rutter bullies and bellows at such an extreme pitch he makes your ear-drums ring. But as the play gradually unfolds, the achievement of Rutter’s performance and Miller’s beautifully judged Northern Broadsides production is to find pathos in the character. Sowerby shows you the catastrophic impact on all his children of Rutherford’s grim determination to hang on to his position, but also the cost to himself.
Sowerby’s plot produces a moral conundrum and exposes the fragilities of everyone caught up in this portrait of class paranoia and capitalism at its most heartless. But she reserves her best, most sympathetic writing for the women. There is a lovely performance from Sara Poyzer, as the daughter, who briefly blooms as she rebels through love, and an outstanding one from Catherine Kinsella as the daughter-in-law: the only person in the play who understands how to tackle Rutherford on his own terms.