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Theatre review Rutherford and Son, National Theatre London

Contemporary parallels abound in a late Edwardian drama of an industrial oligarch on the rocks

IN THE same week that British Steel was sabotaged by ruthless greed, this revival of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play Rutherford and Son couldn’t be more timely.

Unlike the shady vultures behind that recent wrecking, here we get a personal portrait of the cold-hearted tyranny of John Rutherford (Roger Allam), whose third-generation Tyneside glassmaking business is beginning to crumble at the same time as his familial relations.

His three long-suffering children — Janet (Justine Mitchell), John Jnr (Sam Troughton) and Richard (Harry Hepple) — have spent their lives tiptoeing around “the Guv’nor” in a house with “not a scrape of love” in it. Janet cowers into a corner as he dresses down John Jnr, while the other women — his sister Ann (Barbara Marten) and daughter-in-law Mary (Anjana Vasan) — remain totally mute in his presence.

As Rutherford’s ruthlessness and years of resentment within the family start to manifest in “dirty tricks” Sowerby’s semi-autobiographical work begins to take flight.

The two scenes in which Rutherford individually confronts would-be lovers Janet and his cornered successor-to-be Martin (Joe Armstrong) over their secret relationship provide the exceptional moments of the production. Searing with political sub-text, in emotionally charged clashes they mount an insurgent challenge to the gender roles of the period and a perceptive analysis of class struggle.

While the rest of the play does not quite reach these heights — many of the scenes are somewhat repetitive — it rebounds with an absorbing conclusion.

A distinguished cast are ably led by Roger Allam, with an outstanding performance from Justine Mitchell as the discerning yet constrained Judith, while Polly Findlay’s sensitively paced direction allows for an unwritten intimacy between these largely restrained characters.

Considering its age and stylistic loyalty to the period, Rutherford and Son cannot help but feel a little outdated. Thankfully, this revival accentuates its contemporary relevance — just don’t expect to be blown away by it.

Runs until August 3, box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk

 

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