Rutherford and Son
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Review by David Chadderton
Githa Sowerby's play of 1912, set in the dysfunctional family home of a factory owner at the turn of the century, occupied one of the positions in the National Theatre's top one hundred plays of the century alongside other plays from the same period with similar themes, such as John Galsworthy's Strife, Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes and Harold Brighouse's Hobson's Choice. The main difference with this play is that it was written by a woman; in fact the anarchist leader Emma Goldman wrote in 1914 that 'until the author of Rutherford and Son made her appearance, no country had produced a single woman dramatist of note.'
Rutherford (like Sowerby's father) owns a glassmaking factory that he inherited from his father. He has put his whole life into running the business, which he intends to pass down to his sons to run after him, but his children see both him and the business as dark, repressive shadows that they want to break free of to make their own lives. By the end of the play, Rutherford has driven away his two sons and his daughter, but he gains something unexpected to take their place at the very end. Sowerby cleverly presents a society filled with conflict - between generations, between genders and between classes - without really commenting on it or drifting into too much controversy, unlike Ibsen who had only died six years earlier and whose plays were still considered offensive by many people.
Maurice Roëves plays a very sympathetic Rutherford - he does not appear to be the evil tyrant he is portrayed by his family as before his first entrance. He believes he has done everything he could to keep the family business going and to provide for and educate his family to leave them with a thriving business and a high social status after he has gone. He does not see the cost of this to his children - in fact, he does not believe that the children are his responsibility until they are old enough to be trained up for the business. His oldest son Richard (Jonas Armstrong), whom he has discarded as of no use to the business, has joined the church and champions the cause of one of his father's former employees whom he has sacked for stealing. His younger son John (Daniel Brocklebank) has tried and failed to survive on his own with his wife and child and returned to his father's house. His daughter Janet (Maxine Peake) is single in her mid-thirties because she has kept house for Rutherford and consequently hardly met anyone outside her immediate family, and she finally breaches a class barrier by beginning a relationship with one of her father's workers.
Out of the actors, Antony Byrne certainly stands out as Martin, Rutherford's factory manager and loyal employee of twenty-five years. His character is at the heart of many of the major turning points in the plot, despite his powerlessness, and he is very natural and sympathetic in the part. Roëves as Rutherford is very relaxed and witty in the part; he does not come across as the monster he is portrayed as by others, but then this is partly because Sowerby has given him the chance to justify his point of view, making him a much more rounded character than similar roles in other plays of this type. Brocklebank brings out a lot of the humour in the part of John, portraying him a lot of the time as a rather pathetic, spoilt child.
However overall, the production comes over as being rather dull. Despite some funny moments and some unexpected plot twists, there are also quite a few parts that drag a bit. Some speeches, particularly from some of the female characters, seem very long and drawn out and are put over with forced emotion that does not seem natural or justified. This is a very long play and this production struggles to hold the attention, but there is a great deal of merit in the play's look at how Victorian and Edwardian values were starting to crumble in the years leading up to the First World War.
"Rutherford & Son" runs until 19 February 2005