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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Rutherford And Son
Lyttelton Theatre   Summer 2019

That Rutherford And Son has a solid, well-made, old-fashioned feel to it is little surprise. It was written in 1912.

That its female characters are all strong (and strongly written) and its men all emotionally stunted tells you (if you hadn't known) that the playwright, Githa Sowerby, was an insightful and talented woman.

That the play was rediscovered by the National Theatre twenty-five years ago after decades of being forgotten, and that it is now revived again in a fully engrossing first-class production reminds us that this is one of the things a National Theatre is for.

Rutherford is a Northern self-made industrialist who rules his family as he rules his glass factory, through instilling fear and brooking no opposition.

He knows he has emasculated his sons and exploited his old-maid-at-37 daughter, but feels no blame or responsibility for it, merely disdain toward them for being so weak.

Rutherford's eldest son would not particularly mind joining the family firm; indeed, he has developed a new process for making glass that would be of great value to it. But he wants to sell it to the company and get some credit and profit from it, and his father will not grant him even that much respect.

The daughter has belatedly found love with a man who is suitable in every way except class, and Rutherford would sooner banish her than let her disgrace him by marrying down.

The play is built on these and other family wars, and it is no spoiler to say that father wins all the battles over money and power, and loses all those involving human values.

Director Polly Findlay is wise enough to treat the play with absolute respect and conviction, embracing its old-fashionedness and occasional awkwardness along with its unquestionable dramatic strengths and character insights – which is to say that things sometimes get a bit melodramatic and overly spelled-out for modern tastes, but that these 'flaws' become absorbed into the play's power.

Roger Allam invests Rutherford with the only slightly ridiculous majesty of a man who never ever wavers from the absolute knowledge that he is right and everyone else is wrong. It is very much to the actor's credit that we also sense the pathos in a man firmly and determinedly walking toward isolation and personal failure.

In contrast, Sam Troughton shows the son to be a man who is right about almost everything but lacks the character depth to do anything with his rightness. And as the old man's longest-serving and most trusted employee Joe Armstrong draws the pitiful portrait of a man who has totally internalised a servant mentality.

But as I said at the start it is the women who really dominate the play. Justine Mitchell builds the very attractive (and very modern without being anachronistic) image of the daughter on equal parts beaten-down exhaustion, newly-discovered potential for happiness and indestructible survival instinct.

She may not be as blindly sure of her rightness as her father, but in core strength she is very much his daughter, and tempered by human feelings as it is, in her that power is very attractive..

And Anjana Vasan invests the son's wife – the 'outsider' in the family – with a quiet intelligence that makes it as believable as surprising that in the end it is she who most successfully stands up to the tyrant.

They don't write plays like this any more, which is a real shame. And so we must celebrate the National Theatre, the director and designers, and the cast, for the gift of this challenging, stimulating, moving and entertaining dramatic experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Rutherford And Son - National Theatre 2019
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