Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford & Son is now heralded as a classic – as well as this version in Sheffield, it’s also being revived by Polly Findlay at the National Theatre in May – but it’s only been rediscovered relatively recently. After its initial run in London, audiences were shocked to discover that the author, billed as KG Sowerby was a woman. Interest cooled, and the play lay unperformed for several decades until a new generation of feminist theatre-makers rediscovered it during the 1980s.
In retrospect, it’s hard to see why audiences were surprised that a female writer was behind Rutherford & Son – this is a play in which strong female characters are very much to the fore, and in Caroline Steinbeis’ production, it’s the women you remember.
Rutherford & Son tells the story of a family in the early part of the 20th century in the North East. Rutherford owns a glassmaking business which he intends to pass onto his son, John, who has other ideas after inventing a revolutionary new technique which he intends to sell to his father. The rest of the family have been crushed under Rutherford’s stern patriarchal rule: his other son Richard intends to move to Southport to work as a curate, while his eldest daughter Janet is secretly having a secret relationship with his right-hand man, Martin. John’s wife Mary also lives in the family home, but is barely acknowledged by Rutherford.
It could make for gruelling. ‘grim-up-north’ social realism, but the strength of Rutherford & Son lie in the performances and in Sowerby’s biting script. It’s easy to see why she was compared to Ibsen and Chekov in her day, and her dialogue is as crisp and sharp nearly a century on. As for the performances that Steinbeis coaxes out of her actors, Owen Teale is stern and gruff as Rutherford with just the merest hint of the monster lurking underneath, but Laura Elphinstone is absolutely electrifying as the perpetually disappointed Janet – she provides the highlight of the show with an impassioned speech at the end of the first half – and Danusia Samal is outstanding as the seemingly unassuming, meek Mary.
There’s a lot of humour in Rutherford & Son as well (mostly from Esh Alladi as Richard who develops an entertaining relationship with Ciaran Owens’ John), which helps to move the play along. And that’s the only criticism really – this is a long evening, clocking in at just under 3 hours, and with a first half that stretches out to a marathon 1 hour 40 minutes. There are also some moments that could be easily edited out – Samal makes her entrance carrying a baby which is never seen again, and seems included purely to say “Look! A real baby! On stage!” and to create some ‘aahs’ from the audience.
Yet that’s a minor criticism really – this is a solid and entertaining revival of a classic play, and one which raises the bar for the National’s production in a couple of months time
Rutherford & Son is at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until February 23rd. Tickets can be bought through their website: https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/rutherford-and-son