Review: Rutherford & Son at Rose Theatre Kingston
“Life is work,” insists John Rutherford, the iron-fisted patriarch of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play. “Work, work and more work and six foot of earth at the end. That’s life.”
Northern Broadsides' adaptation of Rutherford & Son has arrived at the Rose Theatre on the back of some highly favourable reviews, and it’s fair to say this one will not be much different.
Having never seen or read the play before, I had anticipated a bleak portrayal of life in the industrial north of the early 20th century.
But the company’s revival of Sowerby’s debut, directed by the great Jonathan Miller, offers much more than a mere “grim up ‘t North” tale of hardship and woe.
Set in the home of the titular John Rutherford, owner of struggling glass-making firm Rutherford’s, the play follows his family as they try to break free of his ruthless grasp.
There’s his gruff, humourless sister Ann, whose hopes of a life outside the shadow of the family business were apparently crushed long ago, and who treats the dreams of the younger women in the house with equally short shrift. “Bein’ ‘appy makes nay porridge,” she grumbles.
Then there’s Janet, Rutherford’s 36-year-old unmarried daughter, who at first seems to be following firmly in the footsteps of her aunt, until we realise that her desire for a better life still burns brightly.
Meanwhile, Rutherford’s two sons, John and Dick, have little ambition to follow their father into the family business, which looks set to die before he does.
But John has a new invention, one that could make the company thousands and secure its future for years to come. Only problem is, it comes with a price that his ruthless father is not willing to pay.
Rutherford & Son is a gripping examination of life, legacy and love in a loveless home. As Rutherford, Northern Broadsides' artistic director Barrie Rutter steals the show. He manages to turn the cruel, calculating task master into something of a likeable anti-hero.
When he first storms onto the stage, having sacked a worker who stole from him, his family cowers in their seats – and so do the audience.
But Rutter invests Rutherford with a curious sympathetic quality – here is a man weighed down by history, fearful that his life’s work – and that of his ancestors - will be obliterated on his watch.
Life for John Rutherford is, indeed, work. And his only hope is that when he receives his “six feet of earth”, that work continues.
Meanwhile Janet and sister-in-law Mary, the younger John’s London-born wife, are more concerned about living life now.
Sara Poyzer is magnetic as Janet – there’s a moment in the play where she simply kneels silently by a chair, her hopes seemingly dashed, but as the scene takes place around her it is she that draws the attention.
Catherine Kinsella as Mary gives the play its romantic heart – until she reveals herself to be the only person capable of bargaining with Rutherford during a brilliant denouement.
But it is Rutter as Rutherford who leaves the biggest impression.
Just as the characters talk almost exclusively about him when he is offstage, so the audience will be long after the show has finished.