Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son spent a long time in the wilderness. Written in 1912, it ran for more than 100 performances in the West End, before dropping into obscurity for six decades. A smattering of revivals in the 1980s, followed by an acclaimed Katie Mitchell production at the National Theatre, starring Bob Peck, helped put it back on the map.
25 years later, and the play is back on the South Bank. Polly Findlay – whose recent credits include The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse, Macbeth for the RSC, and Beginning at the NT – directs a revival in the Lyttleton that runs in rep until early August.
Two-time Olivier award winner Roger Allam – a certified stage legend – takes on the role of Rutherford, a patriarchal capitalist who drives his long-suffering family to despair. He’s joined by Justine Mitchell, Sam Troughton, Joe Armstrong and more.
But does Allam add another impressive entry on his stonking CV? Does Sowerby’s play still resonate more than 100 years on from its premiere? Does Findlay find the fire in this century-old study of oppressive industrialism?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Sowerby’s play concerns John Rutherford – a glass magnate in North East England – and his three alienated children, each of whom resents him for different reasons. Do the critics think Sowerby’s social study still work today?
They definitely do. The play is “now firmly established not just as a landmark of Edwardian feminism but as one of the most durable plays of the last century, comparable to the best of Harley Granville-Barker and DH Lawrence,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), while Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★) praises the “enduring, slow-burning, and eventually churning power of this play” and states that it’s now “in the reclaimed, rather than lost, corner of world drama”.
“Drawing on her own background – her family owned a glass manufacturing business in Gateshead – Sowerby’s play is a remarkable piece of writing, astute about class, capitalism and the destructive capacity of unbending men,” praises Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “Sowerby excels at showing the way in which women navigate the patriarchy, the unending compromise and negotiation.”
It is “a darkly passionate portrait of a feuding family, as well as a canny vision of a business at risk in an age of political and sexual upheaval,” says Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “There’s plenty of topical resonance in its sense of festering tensions between the generations.”
Several critics admire Sowerby’s humanity, Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) writing that although “it’s a long, wordy piece, with the heavy three-act structure of its time”, it is “written with a profound sense of empathy that means even the monstrous Rutherford is understandable”.
Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★), meanwhile, notes how “the opening is grindingly slow” but ultimately admires how “the play makes something so gripping and saddening and amusing, too, from sexual politics and class politics and family politics”.
The first act “isn’t exactly bubbling over with drama” and it’s only in the second half that “it all kicks off” echoes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), but this, he continues, is “a cult-ish classic by a female playwright finally given the blockbuster production it always deserved”.
Polly Findlay won the JMK Young Directors’ Award in 2007, and her star has been rising ever since. She’s worked at the NT multiple times now, from taking the reins of Treasure Island in the Olivier in 2014, to David Eldridge’s Beginning in the Dorfman two years ago. What do the critics make of her direction here, and of Lizzie Clachan’s design?
There are plenty of positives. Maxwell calls Findlay’s revival “timely” and “memorable”, Crompton praises it as “gleaming”, and Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) labels it “mainly exemplary”.
“Clachlan’s depiction of their home near the glass factory in Tyneside which is the source of their fortune and their misfortune, perfectly captures the constricted nature of the world in which they are operating,” continues Crompton. “In this world, director Polly Findlay (and movement director Polly Bennett) orchestrate a subtle dance of meaning; where people sit, and when they sit or stand, create an undertow of significance.”
Elsewhere, though, there are grumbles about a few staging decisions. Billington complains how Findlay and Clachan “swathe the play in “atmosphere” and spoil the “visual clarity” of the piece, while Tripney notes that “some of Findlay’s more cinematic flourishes – the ceaseless sheeting rain, the choral music – obscure rather than illuminate”.
The production “tilts towards melodrama at times”, she continues, while Lukowski says that it sometimes “feels a bit plodding, straitjacketed by period detail”.
“Findlay’s production of this well-made play runs at almost three hours, and it can’t quite shrug off a cumbersome Edwardian feel, preferring authenticity over accessibility,” observes Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk, ★★★). “Although this production is worthy, it is not revelatory.”
Roger Allam will be familiar from his small screen roles in The Thick Of It and Game Of Thrones, but he’s spent most of his years on stage, building a stellar career that’s seen him scoop up five Olivier nominations, and two wins. His last appearance at the NT was over a decade ago: how does his do on his return?
He is, by all accounts, great. He’s “magnificent” according to Billington, “in tremendous form” according to Shenton, and supplies a “northern powerhouse of a central performance” according to Maxwell.
“Allam is all brooding magnificence as the bearded ogre, a cross between a feudal overlord with shades of Lear, a figure out of Dickens and a very modern Faust who has sacrificed his humanity to service the capitalist machine,” writes Cavendish. “He could be a growling and roaring stereotype but Allam brings out his chill watchfulness and impatience.”
He “makes Rutherford a man, not a monster”, chimes Crompton, while Tripney praises how “he resists the urge to make a cartoon villain of him” in a “relatively restrained” performance.
“It’s a performance of understated intensity, as Allam locates both the scornful bluntness and lingering humanity of a man who’s simultaneously a tyrant and a prisoner, trapped by his single-mindedness,” adds Hitchings.
Other cast members come in for praise as well, particularly Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton as Janet and John Rutherford’s daughter and eldest son respectively.
Mitchell is “a picture of pain” according to Lukowski, has “a savage irony” according to Crompton, and is “frayed, frustrated, furious” and “staggeringly good” according to Tripney, while Troughton “perfectly captures” the “furious neediness” of John according to Hitchings and finds a compelling “touch of nervous hysteria” according to Billington.
Allam is excellent in the title role of Rutherford, as are Mitchell and Troughton as two of his alienated offspring. Findlay’s production is generally praised, but plenty of critics find a few faults, particularly in her over-atmospheric inclusion of sheeting rain and a capella choruses; Sowerby’s play dawdles a bit in the first half, but still packs a punch more than a century on from its premiere, with its sad study of an industrialist family falling apart.
A slew of four-star reviews suggest that this is definitely one for Rufus Norris to chalk up in his hit column, but it’s not an unqualified success.